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Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Tennis not necessarily the game of choice for Wimbledon's competitors

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Soccer a religion

WIMBLEDON, England -- The standing-room-only crowd at the Common Room is focused intently on the several flat screens scattered around the popular pub. As the ball moves back and forth, murmurs -- fueled by various amber nectars -- flow through the room like electricity.

It's the Wimbledon fortnight, yeah, but tennis is not the game of choice on this night. It's Sunday and the tournament won't begin for 16 hours. No, this game is soccer -- football over here. The Spain-Italy match was the last of the greatly anticipated quarterfinals of Euro 2008, the quadrennial event that alternates with the World Cup.

For the next several days soccer -- not tennis -- will be the dominant topic of conversation in the locker rooms and lounges of the All England Club.

Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, had a front-row seat at the Common Room for the match that Spain eventually won on penalty kicks after 120 minutes without a goal.

AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

Rafael Nadal is not focusing solely on Wimbledon during this fortnight.

"When we play the Super Bowl, it's a team, it's a city," explained Gilbert, a sports fanatic who adores the Raiders. "This -- it's a whole nation, which elevates it to a completely different level.

"The game here is soccer and that takes it beyond anything we have. Soccer, football, over here -- it's a religion."

On Wednesday, Germany played Turkey in the first semifinal, which is why BBC analyst Boris Becker was sporting a red, black and gold scarf. He was predicting a 2-0 German victory. There were 14 German men in the draw and another five women. Turkey? Not a single player on either side.

"I'll be watching it at the house with some friends," said Rainer Schuettler. "Gonna be a big match. Obviously a lot of Turkish people live in Germany. Whatever happens, it will be a great party I think at home.

"I think at the end Germany will win, but you saw it in the last matches, they [Turkey] are fighting until the end like crazy. They just want to go through. They nearly lost three times already. Of course they're confident. But it's an advantage that they have some people missing with injuries and suspensions. I think it will be close but Germany will win.''

Thursday is an appetizing matchup between Spain and Russia. There are 27 Russians in the field and 19 Spaniards. Perhaps the most notable football enthusiast is No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain.

"We deserved to win and Italy, a country that I truly love and enjoy very much, played simply ugly and bad," Nadal wrote in his blog for ESPN.com. "But they are the world champions so respect to them."

Nadal was asked how nerve-racking the game was until Cesc Fabregas stroked the winning penalty kick.

"I think the same like everybody, no?" he said. "A lot of nervous. So we finish the match jumping, everybody. Was very important for us to be in semifinal."

The Spain-Russia match kicks off at 7:45 p.m., local time. Is Rafa looking for an early match?

"I hope so," he said, smiling.

Countryman Tommy Robredo is also scheduled to play on Thursday.

"Depending on time, I'm gonna watch the match for sure," he said. "At the end I think Spain is playing good and we already beat them in qualifying.

"I hope to beat them again.''

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Five things we learned on Wednesday

1. Going deep into a third set is contagious: A day after German Julia Goerges toppled Slovenian Katarina Srebotnik in a thriller that lasted three hours, 40 minutes -- the second-longest women's singles match at Wimbledon -- and produced a 16-14 score in the third set, the women were at it again.

World No. 1 Ana Ivanovic staved off two match points to down French veteran Nathalie Dechy 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 10-8 in more than three hours, 20 minutes.

"It was very tough,'' Ivanovic said. "During these three-and-a-half hours there was a lot of ups and downs in concentration, which is obviously normal. You can't keep your concentration for a full time.''

Spaniard Anabel Medina Garrigues beat 20th-seeded Italian Francesca Schiavone 9-7 in the third, the encounter lasting just under three hours. Schiavone actually won one more point.

2. Marat Safin isn't lazy, honest: Not long ago Marat Safin was known for having a, shall we say, less than exemplary work ethic. He's apparently a changed man.

Safin, a solitary Grand Slam title to show for his immense talent, pulled off the biggest win of his career in a while when he eliminated fast rising and third-seeded Serb Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2 in the second round.

"It's a little bit sad to see other people winning and working only half of the time that I'm doing,'' Safin said. "I've been working unbelievably hard, unbelievable in preseason, even if the results were not coming at the beginning of the season. I was losing left and right.''

In fact, his coach, Hernan Gumy, waxed lyrical about Safin's work ethic at the French Open.

3. Djokovic still has a sense of humor: Djokovic suffered his earliest exit at a Grand Slam since losing in the fourth round of the 2007 Australian Open, saying he was mentally tired. He was still sharp enough to crack a few jokes in his postmatch press conference.

When asked what his next move was, he said, "I'm going to probably stay another week and watch matches. Not,'' drawing a bout of laughter.

More seriously, a vacation is in order.

"I'll rest a little bit,'' he said. "Without the racket. I'll leave the rackets at home, and I'll go somewhere many miles away.''

4. Serena's serve isn't clicking: Serena Williams, trying to put a third-round loss at the French Open behind her, needs to pick up her first serve percentage -- and she knows it.

Williams got just 58 percent of her first serves in as part of a 6-4, 6-4 second-round victory over last year's Wimbledon junior champion, Urszula Radwanska. The number was even lower in a first-round win over Estonian Kaia Kanepi. Not a good sign as the second week approaches.

"If I'm serving well, my whole game is better,'' Williams, blessed with one of the biggest deliveries in the women's game, said. "I haven't been serving great yet, but in practice it's unbelievable. So I'm like waiting on it to come in the match. I figure it's going to come when I need it, sooner or later.''

Up next is 2006 winner Amelie Mauresmo, mired in a slump and hampered by injuries.

5. Tursunov can't stay away from the Brits: Dmitry Tursunov, the ATP's resident blogger, faces another Brit in England tomorrow, squaring up against Chris Eaton, the lowest ranked player in the singles draw at No. 661.

Tursunov downed fan favorite Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2005 and then again in Nottingham last year, a loss at the Artois Championships sandwiched in between. There was more exposure last week when the Russian was thrown out of the tournament in Nottingham for disagreeing with a line call and storming off court during a doubles match.

"Well, Britain loves its yellow press, and yellow press likes to create public enemies, so it's not going to be anything new,'' the 25th seed said. "Everywhere you go each country has a player that, a new kid on the block, I guess. So it's nothing unusual, and I'm not going to expect the crowd to be behind me.''

-- Ravi Ubha

Ready for Rafa

At Wimbledon's top men's warm-up, London's Artois Championships, baby-faced Latvian Ernests Gulbis admitted he sometimes found it hard to get pumped up for lesser opponents. No problem with that tomorrow.

Gulbis, whose big game got him to the French Open quarterfinals, faces the hottest player on tour, world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, in a match likely to be featured on Centre Court. Gulbis' coach, Austrian Karl-Heinz Wetter, said Gulbis shouldn't be underestimated.

"Rafa has to break Ernie, and that's another story,'' Wetter said. "I think he has a chance to play a really good match. At the end we'll see what's going on. But it's not as easy as some guys see it.''

Nadal, it should be pointed out, isn't one of those taking Gulbis lightly, professing following his win over German Andreas Beck that the 19-year-old, ranked 48th, was one of the worst opponents he could land in the second round.

"Very aggressive player, very good serve, very aggressive with amazing forehand,'' Nadal, the Artois winner, said.

Gulbis practiced today with veteran Austrian Jurgen Melzer, like Nadal a left-hander, though Wetter, understandably, refused to talk tactics, other than to say his charge needed to serve well. In a four-set win yesterday over 6-foot-9 American John Isner, admittedly not the most solid of returners, Gulbis wasn't broken and hit 16 aces.

Wetter began working with Gulbis, who was coached earlier by noted Croatian Niki Pilic, in November.

He hasn't sensed a lack of motivation or Gulbis wanting to stay out too late -- Gulbis admitted he used to party into the early hours prior to matches.

"Since I've been with him, I haven't seen him party so far,'' Wetter said. "Maybe he wants to do it, but he doesn't do it. And there's a lot of hunger. He's improving and he wants to go far. It's not his goal to go once in the top 50, then be happy. He's not that kind of guy.''

--Ravi Ubha

On the mend?

Vaidisova

Nicole Vaidisova in terminal decline? Nah, just growing pains, according to her coach, David Felgate.

Vaidisova, much lauded when she won a pair of titles as a 15-year-old, fell out of the top 20 Monday for the first time since October 2005. Part of the Czech's slump this season featured a six-match losing streak which was snapped at a grass-court tune-up in Birmingham, England, only two weeks ago.

Vaidisova, now 19, is perhaps reviving after downing dangerous Aussie Samantha Stosur, on the mend from viral meningitis, 6-2, 0-6, 6-4 to reach the third round.

"Every player, no matter how good they are in their own little world, has a blip,'' Felgate, a mild-mannered Brit who used to coach mild-mannered Brit Tim Henman, said as he perused the action at Wimbledon's practice courts. "You had two or three years of coming onto the scene, no pressure. You throw all of those equations in, and I just think it's normal and a new thing to learn to deal with, like losing to people you might not have done before, so it doesn't surprise me.''

Often compared to three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova because she, too, is a tall blonde from Eastern Europe with a Nick Bollettieri-groomed baseline game, Vaidisova, now 19, was hampered by mono and a wrist injury in 2007.

Felgate played down suggestions Vaidisova lacked motivation and said her ongoing relationship with Czech men's pro Radek Stepanek, 10 years older, wasn't a factor.

The two are dating, at the least, with some published reports suggesting they're engaged. According to Czech journalists, the duo is sharing a house together during Wimbledon.

"A lot's been made about Radek. To have a boyfriend, that's not the issue," Felgate said. "It's her personal life and she does what I tell her to do [on the court]."

"She's been out there and wants it. If she continues to work, with her talent and ability, there's no reason to think she won't get back to [her career high], No. 7.''

Vaidisova gets another Aussie next, big hitter Casey Dellacqua. Dellacqua prevailed in their last outing at the Pacific Life Open in March.

-- Ravi Ubha

Reynolds' wrap

Reynolds

Wearing his hat backward and sporting a sleeveless white shirt and a slashing two-handed backhand on Court 18, Bobby Reynolds did his best Robby Ginepri imitation on Wednesday.

Ginepri was the last American standing at Roland Garros, winning his first three matches. Now, Reynolds is in position to win his third match on Friday.

Reynolds handled Frank Dancevic 4-6, 7-6 (10), 6-4, 6-4. That equaled the 25-year-old Cape Cod native's best Grand Slam showing, a third-round advancement at the 2005 Australian Open that ended when he ran into a kid named Nadal.

"I came out a little nervous, forehand was kind of flying on me a little bit," Reynolds said. "Obviously the tiebreaker, felt like a huge momentum change."

On set point, Reynolds threw up an improbable lob, which froze Dancevic at net. Reynolds loosed a soaring Tiger Woods-esque uppercut and was on his way.

Reynolds' serve has been his best friend here: 54 of his 113 services were not returned -- and 27 were aces.

As recently as early April, Reynolds was struggling, coming off a stretch of five losses in six matches. But he put together back-to-back wins in Challengers in Tallahassee and Baton Rouge to lift his ranking just high enough to gain automatic entry at Wimbledon.

"It gives me confidence, winning those Challengers," Reynolds said. "I think I was the second-to-last guy in here, based on the original cuts. It's made my schedule so much easier for the summer. Now I don't have to worry, do I have to play a Challenger, do I have to play an ATP?"

Reynolds is ranked No. 102 and that is likely to improve -- especially if he can find a way to beat Feliciano Lopez. Expect fireworks because Lopez, with 44 aces, and Reynolds, with 37, are currently ranked 1-2 among men.

"I don't dislike the matchup," Reynolds said.

On a day when Serena Williams breezed, 6-4, 6-4 over Urszula Radwanska, Bethanie Mattek of Miami joined her in the third round. Mattek defeated Vera Dushevina 7-6 (6), 6-4.

It's her best Grand Slam performance ever. Next up: No. 11 seed Marion Bartoli, a finalist here last year.

-- Greg Garber

Giving back

Murray

Andy Murray might be the most sought-after player at Wimbledon, given he's single-handedly carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. He's trying to become the first British men's winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry, whose statue rests on the grounds, way back in 1936.

Still, he's being generous with his time.

Murray, unusually unaccompanied as he trudged through the practice pavilion at Wimbledon in the early afternoon, made his way up a walkway and peered down to a posse of kids who had just spotted him and wanted an autograph or photo. He cut across the grass, went down a set of steps that were well out of his way, and made a beeline for the somewhat stunned crowd. Without a camera in sight, he proceeded to sign autographs for whoever asked for one.

Dare we say it's atypical behavior for more than a few high-profile players nowadays?

"I was in the exact same position as them when I was their age,'' Murray, who meets unpredictable Belgian Xavier Malisse in the second round, said when asked about his gesture. "Quite a few players walked past me, and I know how upsetting it is. I used to hang around the practice courts all the time to watch the players.''

Photographers and cameramen were in full force hours earlier, when Chris Eaton, the only other British man in the second round, surfaced. He was given a British flag by a photographer, who then gleefully clicked away as Eaton posed with it, the flag displayed behind his back.

-- Ravi Ubha

Reticent dad

Williams

Richard Williams, the outspoken father of Grand Slam winners Venus and Serena Williams, wasn't in a talkative mood after overseeing Serena's practice session today.

Asked about his daughters' third-round losses at the French Open on the same day last month, Richard Williams suggested "the thing that happened was just that the opponents outplayed them.''

He failed to shed light on Venus' health, a hot topic of conversation, only saying, "I think she's OK,'' and refused to dwell on a possible all-Williams Wimbledon final.

Earlier this year, Richard Williams drew criticism from the women's tour for saying his daughters, who are black, were "never accepted by tennis."

-- Ravi Ubha

Critics' choice

Nadal

Rafael Nadal vs. Ernests Gulbis: Nadal just turned 22, but he is the veteran in this match. Gulbis, a 19-year-old Latvian, has all the weapons to go deep into Grand Slams, but his head sometimes holds him back. Gulbis knocked James Blake out of the French Open, but he'll have his hands full on Thursday.

ESPN.com prediction: Nadal in straight sets.

-- Greg Garber