WIMBLEDON, England - Forget Wimbledon's whiners.
Ignore the championship pretenders.
Until further notice, Wimbledon is running on Pete Sampras time.
Tennis' grass-court king opens defense of his Wimbledon crown on Centre Court today against Jiri Vanek, beginning a march that he hopes will lead to a seventh men's championship and record 13th Grand Slam trophy.
When it comes to making tennis history, Sampras adamantly refuses to be rushed.
"I don't look at the record as something I want to get over with," he said last week during final preparations for a Wimbledon campaign that could take him past Australia's Roy Emerson as the all-time Grand Slam king. "It's something that you can't take for granted."
With Sampras poised for his championship run and the All England Club spruced up to meet a new tennis century, this is shaping up as the most compelling Wimbledon in years.
But before a ball was struck, controversy lit into the tournament yesterday as Spaniards Alex Corretja and Albert Costa, both ranked in the top 16 on the ATP Tour but unseeded here, withdrew to protest Wimbledon's seeding system, which favors grass-court players. Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, another top 16 player who was unseeded, withdrew with a back injury last week.
"Mentally, I don't feel like playing this year's Wimbledon because I don't see myself respected as a person and as a player," Corretja said. The other Grand Slams follow the ATP rankings.
All England Club chairman Tim Phillips said the club will waive fines and seek a solution to the controversial situation next year.
"There is inevitably an element of subject in what we do ... that is open to criticism," he said.
The tournament also was hit with a few verbal swipes earlier this month. Andrei Medvedev of Ukraine criticized the tournament's conditions but backed off after having a cup of tea and a talk with Phillips. French Open champion Mary Pierce said Wimbledon "is not very player-friendly."
When the tennis begins, the fuss should subside.
Defending women's champion Lindsay Davenport has struggled this season with a back injury but will attempt to hold off the likes of top seed Martina Hingis, who could still use a good second serve on grass, Pierce, and Serena and Venus Williams.
Women's doubles also will toss up a terrific story line with the return of 43-year-old Martina Navratilova, who is due to team with Mariaan de Swardt.
Wimbledon's history will be celebrated Saturday with a "Champions Parade" on Centre Court, as a who's who of tennis greats gather, linking the old century with the new. At Wimbledon, this year's tournament is being billed as "The Millennium Championships."
Sampras should still be in the tournament come parade day. But he could find that this is a tough tournament to win.
Six players to watch include Andre Agassi, Sampras' rival and last year's losing finalist; Richard Krajicek, the last man to beat Sampras at Wimbledon en route to winning the 1996 title; British hopes Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski; and Australians Mark Philippoussis and Lleyton Hewitt.
While Agassi has been stuck in a slump, Henman appeared woeful in two grass-court tuneups but remains the Wimbledon crowd favorite. If Rusedski can control his big serves, he is capable of going far in the draw.
But the biggest threats to Sampras could be the Australians.
In a move designed to harness his potential, Philippoussis has been taking advice from ex-Wimbledon champion Boris Becker. In last year's quarterfinals, Philippoussis was up a set and appeared prepared to serve Sampras out of Wimbledon before buckling with a leg injury and retiring from the match.
Hewitt, a 19-year-old whose ponytail bounces beneath his backward baseball cap, beat Sampras in two sets in the final at Queen's Club, a grass-court tuneup. They could meet in the quarterfinals.
"He is one of the best players in the world on form and has the chance of becoming one of the true greats," former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe wrote of Hewitt in London's Sunday Telegraph.
In his look at the men's field, McEnroe said that as long as Sampras' tender back holds up, he "is still the grass-court master."
As a young pro who grew up with a two-fisted backhand, Sampras said, he never thought he would be in a position like this: staring tennis history straight in the face on a sporting court he likens to a cathedral.
Now, he is a model serve-and-volley player, the greatest of his generation, and perhaps of all time.
Centre Court is his natural tennis home.
"You just stand there and look around at the stadium, look at the court, look how green and plush it is," he said. "I just love the place."
And he plans to return for a few more years.
"I loved watching the tournament as a kid and now I have won here six times and certainly I'd like to add to that over the next four, five years," he said. "But this is a place that I love to play. I feel like the whole world is watching when Wimbledon is on TV. It is definitely our biggest event."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
At a glance
When: Today through July 9
Where: All England Club, Wimbledon, England
TV: TNT, CNN/SI, NBC
Top seeds: Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis
Defending champions: Sampras, Lindsay Davenport
(Seeds in parentheses) Today's men's singles Pete Sampras (1), vs. Jiri Vanek
Magnus Norman (3) vs. Mark Woodforde
Cedric Pioline (6) vs. Christian Ruud
Lleyton Hewitt (7) vs. Michael Gambill
Today's women's singles Martina Hingis (1) vs. Angeles Montolio
Conchita Martinez (4) vs. Anne Kremer
Venus Williams (5) vs. Kveta Hrdlickova
Sandrine Testud (10) vs. Anna Kournikova