He's in a slump. He lacks motivation. He's burned out.

Pete Sampras has heard it all and admits that much of it is true.But there's one antidote that can bring Sampras back to life: the green lawns of Wimbledon.

"There's just something about Wimbledon - the history, the grass, an intensity that seems to bring out the best in me," he said. "When I get onto Centre Court, I'm pumped and I think the other guys still fear me."

Sampras gets a chance to halt his slide today when he begins defense of his Wimbledon title against Slovakia's Dominic Hrbaty in the opening match of the fortnight on Centre Court. A solid showing should give some indication whether Sampras is poised to win his fifth championship in six years.

"I feel come 2 o'clock Monday, it's kind of like coming back home," he said. "It hasn't been a great year by any means, but this is kind of where I kicked it in last year. I feel like I can obviously do it again."

With only two other former champions - Andre Agassi and Richard Krajicek - in the field and a shortage of strong grass-court players in the game, Sampras remains the favorite.

But the American has lost his aura of invincibility since trouncing Cedric Pioline in straight sets in last year's final. He lost in the fourth round in the 1997 U.S. Open, the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the second round of the French Open.

Sampras briefly lost his No. 1 ranking to Marcelo Rios, regained it and now holds it almost by default.

Players who could stop Sampras include Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Ag-assi, Krajicek, Petr Korda, Patrick Rafter and the two Brits - Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman.

The exceptionally wide-open nature of the men's tournament is underlined by this fact: there have been 10 different players in the last five Grand Slam finals.

Agassi, the 1992 champion who has zoomed back up the rankings since dropping to 141st last November, was matched today against Spain's Alex Calatrava.

Much of the focus this year will fall on the women's tournament, where a fascinating mix of the new and the old will vie for the title.

Martina Hingis, the defending champion and top seed, doesn't play until Tuesday. Fellow 17 year olds Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova, recovering from a thumb injury, also are off until Tuesday.

The highest women's seed in action on opening day was No. 2 Lindsay Davenport, matched vs. Argentina's Florencia Labat.

But the spotlight today fell on seven-time champion Steffi Graf, who was on Centre Court against Spain's Gala Leon Garcia.

The fourth-seeded German is playing her 13th Wimbledon. But it's her first in two years and her first Grand Slam tournament since undergoing major knee surgery a year ago.