A week of upsets

NIRMAL SHEKAR

Day One: Monday, June 24: As the television cameras turn their attention from a teary-eyed David Seaman and a shattered David Beckham to the freshly cut grass at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, the blue skies above and a confident Tim Henman relaxing after a practice session, the gloom lifts marginally.

Not by much though. Even if Tim Henman goes on to become the first Englishman to win the Wimbledon title since Fred Perry won the last of his three in 1936, even if Nasser Hussain and his boys end up winning next year's cricket World Cup in South Africa - one event as unlikely as the other, but in this season of big suprises in sport, who knows? - nothing will ever compensate for the death of a dream in Korea and Japan.

Give English sports fans a single World Cup football title, and they will give you everything else they have, including perhaps the Morachy in the Queen's golden jubilee year.

So indeed would a lot of other people from countries like Spain and Argentina and Italy, where football is the mother of all sports.

"Good morning, how are you." I greet my good friend from Barcelona, a Spanish sportswriter who's been on the tennis beat for over two decades.

He smiles, and acknowledges my greeting in a whisper. His face is drawn and even the smile is strained.

"I have still not got over it. We were robbed. That was a shame. Why is FIFA doing this? They are ruining a good World Cup," he says, referring to the controversial decisions in the Spain-South Korea World Cup quarterfinals.

In the drive to Wimbledon, the mood in the press mini-bus is rather sombre. But, then, with a pair of Spaniards and an Italian and an Argentine, two of them just back from Korea and Japan, what would you expect?

Then again, at Wimbledon, it is the kind of day every Englishman dreams of during the summer but only rarely gets to experience. Cloudless skies, brilliant sunshine and the prospect of a wonderful day's tennis.

Never mind the ludicrously expensive strawberries, the jostling crowds that make it impossible for professionals like me to get anywhere near any of the outside courts, the long queues for everything, from the left baggage counter to food stalls and the toilets. This is another Wimbledon, the sun is shining, Tim Henman is the favourite, for once, and everything should be all right, in time.

On the centre court, first up, Andre Agassi is busy dismantling the Israeli Harel Levy's game, belting out winners at will. Levy, like all young Israelis, has served time in the Army and would have dearly loved to have brought into court some potent army issue weapon rather than a tennis racquet.

Later in the day, Martin Lee, the young Londoner, might have entertained similar thoughts too. If he had expected Pete Sampras - playing with his lower rib strapped because of a strain - to be a shorn Samson, then the reality is quite different. Odd bursts of excellence from the great man is enough to stamp out Lee's challenge and the Londoner might have been pleased to trade his racquet for the martial arts skills of his long-gone namesake and karate icon, Bruce Lee, to try and deal with the seven-time champion.

Long before Lee makes his bow on the centre court, quite a few privileged spectators there are seen slipping out and trying their luck outside the No. 2 court where there is a real threat of a stampede.

This, of course, is the day's Real Show - and for testestreone charged males in the joint, the Only Show there is.

Anna Kournikova, the Marilyn Monroe of modern tennis, is in action, presumably playing tennis. But, as it has transpired, she has not been playing tennis with any kind of success in recent times, losing in the first round five out of six times after returning from an injury break.

Today, Anna pouts and smiles and giggles and gyrates her way to a three set loss to another Moscow native, Tatiana Panova. She is heavier than she was a year ago and much slower too on the court and her ranking has slipped to No.55.

None of these details is, of course, relevant to people who handle her commercial interests, and their own, rather well. Last year, she ranked in a little short of Rs.50 crores in endorsements. The figure should be about the same this year too. Incidentally, she is yet to win her first Tour event!

When questioned about her dipping fortunes on court in a television interview after the match by BBC's Garry Richardson, the Cover Girl flares up. When it is suggested that her confidence is low, Kournikova shoots back: "How do you know about my confidence. I don't think you should phrase your question that way."

"If you ask people in the dressing room, you'd know that is the real Anna Kournikova," said Pam Shriver, the popular TV commentator and former player.

Match of the day: Pete Sampras beat Martin Lee 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "You seem to know more than I do. No, that is not true. Again, if that was true, Steff(i) has not told me yet."

- Andre Agassi when asked if his second child was on the way.

Day Two: Tuesday, June 25: Is this London? Am I here for the Wimbledon fortnight?

Rubbing my eyes in disbelief, I step out of the hotel this morning in brilliant sunshine. A fourth straight cloudless morning... is this real!

Well, it is more real than David Beckham lifting the Cup that matters - which is the picture you see in a tabloid that has put together a What-If story of England's dashed World Cup hopes today.

Out in Wimbledon, it is a slow start. There is very little early action to enthuse you. Sitting in the press restaurant and browsing the daily programme notes over a cup of coffee, you suddenly hear a familiar voice.

"It is a big day for us. I hope the boys win," says a friend from the German media as he takes the chair across the table. "I am very tense. I don't want to watch it."

"Don't worry," your diarist tells him. "Go to sleep and wake up two hours later. Germany would have won 1-0."

Of course, that's the last thing he'd do. And after ripping off all his fingernails through 90-plus minutes of play, he greets me with a wide grin. The man is ecstatic.

"You know, we don't have our Boris Becker and Steffi Graf anymore. And we thought this football team would never get anywhere. But I am very happy today," he says.

Those of us who are looking for some interesting stuff to write about are not very happy. Venus Williams walks in, gets her job done in 45 minutes and Lleyton Hewitt makes a meal of Jonas Bjorkman, winner at Nottingham last weekend and a player expected to offer a still test to the top seed.

Then it happens. A 6ft 4in beanpole from Split grabs his first chance on a big stage to announce himself to the world. Mario Ancic from Croatia arrives to fill the void left by his townsman Goran Ivanisevic, who is unable to defend his title because of a shoulder surgery.

Playing wonderfully aggressive, nerveless, serve and volley tennis, Ancic gets off to a great start against Roger Federer, a tournament favourite and the seventh seed, and never lets up as to win in straight sets.

In the BBC commentary box, expert commentator is a man who knows all about the feeling of stepping on the centre court for the first time and making a name for oneself.

Boris Becker, who as a 17-year old, stunned the world of tennis by winning the title here in 1985, unseeded, is suitably impressed by Ancic's performance.

"He has all the makings of a champion. He is aggressive, he has guts and he raises his game for the big points," says Becker.

Ancic, coached by the man who has worked with both Becker and Ivanisevic - the Aussie Bob Brett - says (what else?) this is the finest day of his career.

But, if you closed your eyes at the press conference, you would have thought you were listening to Ivanisevic. The same familiar drawl, even the smile is Goran's.

"We are all the same you know, in Split," says Ancic. "But I am not the next Goran. I am Mario. Everybody will know me like that."

That is certain. Everybody will know him not only as Mario, but if he lives up to his promise, perhaps a great champion too in the future.

Elsewhere, in the "countryside", Thomas Johansson, the Australian Open champion and eighth seed, is beaten by Flavio Saretta of Brazil in five long sets.

Boring day? You must be kidding. But that's Wimbledon for you. Nothing seems to happen. Then, suddenly, everything starts happening.

Match of the day: Mario Ancic beat Roger Federer 6-3, 7-6(2), 6-3.

Quote of the day: "I just break them. I am not too sensitive like him to talk to them."

- Ancic when asked if too, like Ivanisevic, broke his racquets and spoke to them.

Day Three: Wednesday, June 26: My good friend Steve Flink, one of the most experienced and widely travelled tennis writers from the United States, greets me on the walkway leading up to the media centre this morning.

Steve is a great admirer of Pete Sampras and has always believed that the great champion has not been given his due by the Americna sports media. And when we meet, the conversation almost always veers towards Sampras.

"This is ridiculous. How can they have him play on the No.2 court," fumes Steve this morning, looking at the schedule for the day and finding out that Sampras would play a Swiss player called George Bastl on the infamous Graveyard of the Seeds, the No.2 court.

"I mean, the man has won this seven times. You don't do that to a great champion. The scheduling is ludicrous," he says.

I agree with him. But, then, the gray suited men in the club have a mind of their own. And this not the first time that they have shown this sort of disrespect to a great champion. In their view, even a mediocre Brit or the so-called glamorous stars such as Agassi and Kournikova are better value for money on the centre and No.1 courts.

So, Agassi, who has won the championship just once, gets to play a second straight match on the centre court today while Sampras, the greatest champion of all times, had to make the trek through the milling crowds to the No.2 court.

Several hours later, watching Sampras stare into the turf in disbelief, perhaps hoping that the earth would cave in and he would disappear from our sights, following his five-set loss to a player who has made the main draw as a lucky loser and is ranked 145, my mind goes back to that conversation with Steve.

Would Sampras have lost to this journeyman on a show court? Certainly not. Only people closely associated with the game, and the players themselves, know what a big difference the surroundings can make. For men such as Sampras, so used to always playing on the centre stage, to suddenly ply his trade in an ambience like an outside court at Wimbledon can be a harrowing experience.

The crowds are so close to the sidelines, the effects of the suna and the wind are so different and it is an entirely new ball game.

"I was not happy about it. Having won this a few times, I figured they'd put me out there (on the show courts). But that's scheduling. You have to play on any court," says Sampras, his face a dark mask.

Perhaps no other loss in his career in the last dozen years might have been quite as hard to take. You look at the great man and you know that it has not gone down well with him. It is going to take a long, long time for him to get over this one.

"There is no question in my mind. I am going to be back. This is not the way I want to go out," he says. And talking about retirement, he says, "I going to stop on my own terms, not when someone else thinks I should stop. What I have done here and what I have done in the game is always going to stick, no matter what."

Of course, it will stick. Who can take the seven Wimbledon titles - something no other man will win in the foreseeable future - and the record 13 Grand Slams away from Sampras?

Yet, at the end of the day, after witnessing yet another ageing champion, Andre Agassi, 32, go down in straight sets to Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand on the centre court, the point that I have often pondered over three decades once again agitates my mind.

From my early days in this business, I have seen it happen to the best of them. From Ilie Nastase down to John McEnroe and now Agassi and Sampras.

The point is not about whether we - the critics, the fans - have the right to tell Sampras when to quit. It is more about the legends getting their timing right.

"A loss like this happens once every ten years," says Sampras after going down to Bastl, a player who has won two Wimbledon matches all his life!

Yet, it's been happening far too often. The man has not won a title since July 2000 and this has been a particularly bad year.

The pattern is the same. You've seen it happen to Nastase. You have seen it happen to McEnroe and even Jimmy Connors too.

The cruel part is, the champions are the last to know, the last to know when their time is up. They tend to fool themselves into believing that they can still recreate the magic of old. The legs go, the reflexes go, the younger once pounce on them, the confidence goes but the desire and hope cling to them like moles on flaking skin.

Then again, the flip side is this: Just because we find it difficult to watch them - the Samprases and the Agassis - go through such agony in painful defeats in the big tournaments, do we have a right to question their own right to keep playing on?

Life after tennis, or any sport for that matter, is not an easy business. There are so many things to consider, so much to debate. Champions who quit in a hurry can often fall into a vacuum. Nothing can replace the thrills of being out there on the centre stage, experiencing that great adrenalin rush and finally savouring the applause.

An ageing actor can switch to character roles, an ageing financial analyst can switch to a less frenetic routine and become a consultant. What does an ageing athlete do? There are only so many seats in a commentary box. And someone like Sampras would hardly want to travel the circuit coaching.

Take Agassi, for instance. He has a lovely wife, a kid, millions in the bank, and like Sampras, he too is unwilling to accept the inevitable.

"I don't look at it as a reflection of where my game is," he says after losing to a player ranked 67, one who was making a Grand Slam third round for the first time.

"I mean, today I wasn't as good as the guy I played. But I still feel like I should be out there and doing better."

Having watched them play some of the best tennis that any man could have played - and having done that over long years - your diarist can only hope that Sampras and Agassi are right, that they have a lot left in them. But, realistically, the chances are, they are fooling themselves. And never in my career have I wished more fervently to be proved wrong!

Ah, what a day this has been. The little Belgian Olivier Rochus giving the second seeded Marat Safin a good 11 inches and 32 kg as well as a four set thrashing and then the heroics of Bastl and Srichaphan. Wimbledon has not seen quite such a day in the opening week in a long, long time.

Match of the day: George Bastl beat Pete Sampras 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "I just hope I can find it pretty soon."

- Sampras's last words at Wimbledon 2002. For "it" read, "my game".

Day Four: Thursday, June 27: "You know what?" says an excited visitor from India on the telephone this morning. "We got ourselves photographed with Leander and Mahima Chowdhury last night."

The two young men from Chennai had joined the queue at 5.30 a.m. yesterday, they say. "It was good fun, very orderly. We were in by 10 and we had a great time."

First time visitors to Wimbledon can seldom be immune to charms of the old club and these two, obviously, had the time of their lives.

"We watched the Paes match (Paes, playing with the little known Australian Stephen Huss, lost in five sets to Byron Black and Robbie Koenig, failing to convert a matchpoint in the 10th game of the decider) and it was thrilling," says one of the men.

As it turns out, these men from Chennai are lucky. They chose the right day. A day when the earth shook, so to say, at Wimbledon. For, compared to the tremors of Wednesday, today is a yawning bore.

So, Juan Carlos Ferrero, the French Open finalist, is beaten. Ah, what a sensation! Who expects Spaniards, the few that care to make the trip here, to stay beyond the first or second round?

And all the talk, predictably, is about how this is Tim Henman's best chance to win the damn thing. No Sampras, no Agassi, no Safin, no Federer.

"There is still a lot of good players out there you know," Hewitt reminds us after winning his second round match against Gregory Carraz of France. "Men's tennis has great depth."

This is evident when the left handed Australian qualifier Scott Draper takes the first set from Henman on the centre court. Surely, someone in the Wimbledon committee room must have missed a heartbeat or two, as do thousands on the court itself.

As it turns out, Henman pulls up his socks and goes through in four sets.

"It was a tough match. I never really felt totally comfortable out there with my game. He was certainly making life difficult for me early on," says Henman.

Later in the evening, it is nice to catch up with some old friends at the press restaurant.

Mike Dickson, for many years the tennis correspondent of the Daily Mail, who has since switched to cricket reporting, tells me how much he enjoyed his trip to India last winter covering the England-India cricket series.

"I loved Madras, your hometown. I was reading The Hindu every day and read all your reports from the Australian Open," says Mike.

Soon, Julian Muscat, formerly tennis correspondent of The Times but now their racing (horse racing) correspondent and Michael Henderson, who wrote such wonderful reports on cricket for The Daily Telegraph before moving to the Daily Mail, join us.

"Henders" as Michael is known in the sports hackers circle here, talks about how much he loved watching Gundappa Visvanath when he was young. "You've always had stylish batsmen in your teams," says Henderson.

It turns out to be a lovely evening but there are deadlines to meet and things to attend to and we say our goodbyes and depart.

Match of the day: Feliciano Lopez (Spain) bt Guillermo Canas (Argentina, seeded 10) 4-6, 2-6, 7-6, 7-5, 10-8. Lopez saved six matchpoints in the third set.

Quote of the day: "I will never come to Wimbledon again if Tim doesn't win this year."

- a Henman fan to a friend at a souvenir shop in the club.

Day Five: Friday, June 28: It is not quite Henmania. But Elena-mania is catching up in a small way. The Kiev-born daughter of a former Russian footballer has become the female version of Tim Henman since beating Amanda Coetzer.

Her father, Sergei, had played for the famous football team from the former Soviet Union, Dynamo Kiev. She came to Britain with her family as a five year old and did much of her schooling in Scotland before coming to London for advanced coaching in tennis.

"I am a bit of a mix," says Elena. "I was born in Kiev, then lived in Ipswich and Perth and now live in England. But I feel British. I even cheered for the England team in the World Cup."

After the win against Coetzer, Elena's pictures are all over the papers this morning. And to think that she is ranked 295 and needed a wild card to play here!

Of course, a new British hope is always good news for the media, not the least television (BBC, the host broadcaster) which was slightly worried about rating this year because one half of Wimbledon clashed with the climactic week of the World Cup.

But surprisingly, despite the World Cup, Wimbledon seems to have lost little, in terms of crowd support, and perhaps even television audience. Over the first five days, attendance figures are more than last year, a total of 2,05,018, which is an increase of 948 on 2001.

As for television audience, BBC would be hoping that Henman would make it all the way to the championship match. For, the audience figures double whenever Britain's great title hope plays. When he beat Scott Draper yesterday, the audience hit peak of 4.9 million, more than double the average of 2.3 million for the first four days.

And if they had their way, BBC would have Henman play the third match on the centre or No.1 court every single time. Nothing at having your man dominate the screen in the peak viewing hours between 5.30 p.m. and 8.00 p.m.

Meanwhile, in the absence of Henman and Henmania, today the focus is on two players who have fought their way out of injury problems. Mark Philippoussis, who had two left knee surgeries in the last 18 months, and Richard Krajicek, the 1996 champion who had an elbow surgery and has missed the last 20 months, are both impressive third round winners today.

A pity they meet each other in the next round. For both these men would add some lustre to the event in the later stages of the championship.

And, the carnage continues. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the fifth seeded Russian, is knocked out by Xavier Malisse of Belgium in straight sets and Greg Rusedski plays one of the finest grass court matches of his life to outplay Andy Roddick, the 11th seed, also in straight sets.

Match of the day: Greg Rusedski beat Andy Roddick 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

Quote of the day: "If I have to be cocky to become a champion, then I am going to have to find another way."

- Mark Philippoussis

Day Six: Saturday, June 29: When it comes to queues, if you are a regular visitor to Wimbledon, nothing surprises you. But this morning you are suprised. It goes on and on and on.

"I wonder how much time it will take for the last people in the queue to get in," says a friend from the Italian press as our mini-bus negotiates it way down Church Road.

"That is, IF they get in," I tell him.

Later in the afternoon, we hear, not surprisingly, that an attendance record has been set for the first Saturday of the championships.

It is not hard to tell why. Tim Henman is playing today on the centre court and even those who have tickets for the No.1 show court prefer to stay up on what is called the Henman Hill to watch the action on the big screen.

And thousands miss a few heartbeats now and again as Henman, playing the talented grass court player Wayne Ferreira of South Africa, takes them for a roller coaster ride.

After throwing away a handy lead in the first set, Henman survives a few scares to take the tiebreak but loses the second set.

The highlight of the match comes in the third set tiebreak. Down 0-4, Henman fights back and the turning point comes when the chair umpire Jorge Diaz overrules a call on the sixth point to make it 2-4 for Henman instead of 5-1 for Ferreira who believes his forehand hit the line.

Anyway, after a lot more edge of the seat stuff, Henman takes the third set tiebreak and with it breaks Ferreira's resovle too.

"This is Wimbledon, so there has to be drama. The crowd lifted me in a big way. The atmosphere was incredible," says Henman.

Later in the evening, Maureen Drake from Canada threatens a huge upset as she takes the first set from Venus Williams. But the two-time champion comes back strongly to win in three sets.

Match of the day: Tim Henman bt Wayne Ferreira 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1.

Quote of the day: "If he had the decency, he would have at least come and apologised."

- Wayne Ferreira about the umpire Jorge Diaz and his critical over-rule in the third set tiebreak.