Monday, Jan 20, 2003
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By Nirmal Shekar
In front of 10,000 spectators, a good majority of whom were risking their vocal chords in his cause, the 18-year-old from Split hoping for a fairytale climax to his best-ever week in a Grand Slam event was ruthlessly shot down by the fourth seeded Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero who won their fourth round contest 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.
What had looked like a charming boy's fantasy flight the moment the prodigiously gifted Croatian teenager beat Sjeng Schalken in the second round turned out to be a dangerous incursion into enemy airspace, into the man's world, to be precise.
In tennis, the jump from boy to man is not a small step but a giant leap. Some of the finest teenaged talents have failed to make the leap successfully, although a handful ones like Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Mats Wilander have done it before their time.
Today, as Ferrero, himself nicknamed Chavalito (Little Kid) by older Spanish players, turned a tennis court into a classroom to hand out object lessons in attacking tennis from the baseline, Ancic seemed no more than just another ambitious acolyte. Named after the country's monarch, the 22-year old Spaniard unwrapped a game of regal splendour to present the stunned audience with a royal treat even as Ancic found out that he had a long way to go before he can hope to match experienced champions like Ferrero on a big stage.
To be sure, that will happen some day; sooner than later. For Ancic is among the most gifted teenagers in the sport today. His friend, mentor and hero Goran Ivanisevic had to wait until he was 29 to win his first major title at Wimbledon. Ancic may not have to endure such a long and agonising wait, years of frustration, hundreds of broken racquets and the tag "Greatest player not to have won a major'' to go with it. But how well he shakes off the psychological effects of such losses and, instead, learns from them, will determine his place in the sport.
Fifteen years ago, on a practice court in the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association stadium, on the eve of a Davis Cup match between India and Yugoslavia led by a giant ace-firing machine called Slobodan Zivojinovic this writer and Vijay Amritraj, the Indian captain, watched a 17-year-old beanpole hitting with Slobodan. It was at once a shock and a revelation. Not since Boris Becker won Wimbledon at that age three years earlier had once seen such precocious talent. That was the year 1988 when Goran Ivanisevic lost routinely in the first round of every tournament he played in.
Four years on, he would appear in his first Wimbledon final, losing by the thinnest of margins a missed backhand volley in an epic five-setter to Andre Agassi.
Ancic has a long way to go before he can hope to emulate his hero. But he made a good enough start at Wimbledon last year beating Roger Federer in the first round and here this week, he has managed to win more Grand Slam matches than in the whole of 2002. ``This has been a great week for me here. Ferrero was too good for me today but I did not take the chances that came my way,'' said Ancic. "I will again talk to Goran and he will tell me what I did wrong today. He has been a great help in my career.''
Ferrero, of course, won't need to ask anyone as to what he did wrong today. He didn't put a foot wrong, to be sure. Aggressive as an attack dog, displaying the precision of a tightrope artist in his far flung groundstrokes and returning serves with tremendous confidence, the 2002 French Open finalist was in the zone.
Ancic did not win a game for 35 minutes. And when he did, it was on Ferrero's serve in the second game of the second set as the Spaniard missed a few first serves. But it was not until the seventh game in that set that Ancic managed to hold serve for the first time in the match.
The third set promised to be close at the start as Ancic held his own for a while but Ferrero quickly stepped on the pedal, broke to 4-2 and then raced to the finish for a place in the quarterfinals against the South African veteran Wayne Ferreira who got past Sargis Sargsian 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
``I played a complete match, very solid. I did not make any mistakes,'' said Ferrero after reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinals outside Roland Garros.
Justine Henin-Hardenne could not have said anything like that. But the fifth seeded Belgian was happy to be merely standing on her own legs and staying alive too in the tournament after a gruelling 7-5, 5-7, 9-7 victory over the 2000 champion and ninth seed Lindsay Davenport in an epic contest that lasted three hours and 13 minutes in the Rod Laver Arena.
Henin was up a set and 2-0 and seemed to be on cruise mode before Davenport fought back courageously, levelled the set, then broke through in the 11th game and finally fended off five breakpoints to serve out the set. By then, Henin had already sought treatment for blisters in her feet and halfway into the third the Belgian started cramping and even fell over on the court once during a point. But she hung in there, came back from a break down, and finally took the match on her third matchpoint on Davenport's serve in the 16th game with a forehand crosscourt return winner to make the last eight.
``I was cramping. I thought the match was over for me,'' said Henin. "But I wanted to fight. I wanted to give everything I could.''Actually she gave everything she could...and some more!
The results: Men's singles: Fourth round: 2-Andre Agassi (U.S.) bt Guillermo Coria (Arg) 6-1, 3-1 (retd); 4-Juan Carlos Ferrero (Esp) bt Mario Ancic (Cro) 6-0, 6-3, 6-2; Wayne Ferreira (RSA) bt Sargis Sargsian (Arm) 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3; Sebastien Grosjean (Fra) bt Felix Mantilla (Esp) 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3
Women's singles: Fourth round: 2-Venus Williams (U.S.) bt Nicole Pratt (Aus) 6-3, 6-2; 5-Justine Henin-Hardenne (Bel) bt 9-Lindsay Davenport (U.S.) 7-5, 5-7, 9-7; 7-Daniela Hantuchova (Slo) bt Patty Schnyder (Sui) 7-5, 6-3; Virginia Ruano Pascual (Esp) bt Denisa Chladkova (Cze) 6-3, 6-3.
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