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SOLID FAVORITES // MEN

He is a student of the game, a knowledgeable source of the game's past greats. Now, at age 24, "Sweet" Pete Sampras is on the verge of becoming one of those legends of tennis himself.

He is the most complete player on the tour, gifted both at the net and from the baseline. To boot, he has one of the greatest serves the game has seen, with top speeds approaching 130 mph.

Those weapons have carried him to the year-end No. 1 ranking three years running and won him seven Grand Slam titles, including the last three Wimbledons. He also topped $5-million in prize money last year, the first pro to reach that plateau in a single season. That, plus his half-million dollars in prize money from this year, puts his already record-setting career total at more than $22-million.

Even though the Summer Games in Atlanta will be his first Olympic experience, he is the favorite to win the gold medal, particularly considering the matches will be played on hard courts, one of Sampras' best surfaces. At the 1990 U.S. Open, which is played on hard courts, he fired 100 aces in winning the two-week tournament, the first of his three titles there.

Best of the rest: Andre Agassi is perhaps Sampras' top challenger for the gold, although there are several who could steal the gold from either player. Even though Agassi is coming off a disappointing second-round loss at the French Open in late May, he has been talking all year about how he'd give his right arm to win a gold medal. So, expect him to be a little more pumped than Sampras, who still may be getting over the recent death of his coach, Tim Gullikson.

Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia should be in the hunt if only because of his monstrous serve. Reigning French Open champion Yevgeny Kalfelinov of Russia and Thomas Enqvist of Sweden are also threats.

Dark horse: Wayne Ferreira of South Africa has a tendency to sneak through draws. If there is an upset or two in his quarter of the draw, he might slip into the final rounds.

Sunshine boys: Medal winners could have Florida ties. Sampras lives in Tampa. Agassi used to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton. MaliVai Washington lives in Ponte Vedra Beach. And U.S. coach Tom Gullikson lives in Palm Coast.

Forgotten? Marc Rosset, the 1992 gold medal winner in singles, hasn't sprung to greater heights since his triumph in Barcelona. In fact, the hard-serving Swiss pro plummeted to No. 35 at the end of '92 but has hovered around No. 15 since then.

Out of sight: The Olympic tennis competitors are some of the few athletes who aren't staying in the Olympic Village. Because of traffic concerns, the players are staying at a hotel near the venue in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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