Ancic: the last man to beat Federer

Mario Ancic is the last player to beat Roger Federer on grass. On Wednesday, the Croatian hopes that history will repeat itself.

Updated: July 3, 2006, 11:41 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Four years ago, a gangly 18-year-old from Croatia qualified for his first main draw match at Wimbledon. And then Mario Ancic torched heavily favored Roger Federer in the first round. The last time a teenager won his debut on Centre Court? Bjorn Borg, in 1973.

Roger Federer
Phil Cole/Getty ImagesRoger Federer has not lost at Wimbledon since Mario Ancic beat him in 2002.

In the intervening time, Federer has held aloft seven Grand Slam singles trophies. Moreover, he has won 45 straight matches on grass, including three Wimbledon championships. Ancic, although he reached the semifinals here in 2004, has never quite lived up to the potential that match suggested.

Now, at the age of 22, fresh off the second title of his career, winner of nine straight matches and a few weeks removed from the highest ranking of his career (No. 9), Ancic has the opportunity to end the streak he helped create.

The two men will meet in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.

On Monday, the No. 1-ranked Federer defeated No. 13-seeded Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 in a scant 84 minutes. Meanwhile, the No. 7-seeded Ancic ended another nice run by Novak Djokovic, winning 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.

"The biggest memory probably is he's the last guy I lost to on grass," Federer said after being asked how he felt about meeting Ancic. "I think that will be the headline, so I'll leave that up to you."

"It was four years ago," Ancic said, "so we both changed a lot. He won three times [at] Wimbledon. [It's a] new match."

Ancic, like 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, was born in Split, Croatia. He first practiced with Ivanisevic in 1994, at the age of 10. Two years later, he served as a ballboy when Ivanisevic played in the Croatia-Australia Davis Cup tie.

It wasn't long before they were calling Ancic "Baby Goran."

Ancic won the pivotal match against the Slovak Republic last December to bring the 2005 Davis Cup to Croatia. It was the first Davis Cup for the country that has been in existence for only 15 years, after a bloody war with Serbia. The victory was celebrated by five million citizens as the greatest in the country's brief history, ranking ahead of Janica Kostelic's three Olympic skiing gold medals, Ivanisevic's Wimbledon title and the soccer team's third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup.

Ancic might have the purest game on grass among the men. He is 6-foot-5 and has an enormous wingspan. He serves and volleys. He is a terrific volleyer, the master of a nearly extinct art. Ancic, along with Tim Henman and Jonas Bjorkman, is one of the few ATP players who is actually comfortable moving forward.

Men's Grass-Court Win Streaks*
48 Roger Federer Halle 2003
-current
41 Bjorn Borg Wimbledon 1976
-Wimbledon 1981
23 John McEnroe Brisbane 1980
-Queen's 1982
23 Pete Sampras Wimbledon 1994
-Wimbledon 1996
23 Pete Sampras Wimbledon 1998
-Queen's 2000
22 Jimmy Connors Queen's 1982
-Wimbledon 1983
* Open era (1968-present)

Against Djokovic, Ancic repeatedly worked his way to net and forced him to be too good. The first set sailed along uneventfully until Djokovic found himself serving to level things at 5-all. On set point, Ancic followed an approach shot to the middle of the net and Djokovic hit a cross-court forehand away from him -- too far wide.

He had a chance to level the second set at 5-all, but Ancic threw away two break points with a too-big forehand and a blown half-volley. Djokovic laced two unreturnable serves and the match was dead even. Djokovic won the third set and was trying to get to 6-all in the fourth when Anic broke him to send the match the distance.

Ancic raised the level of his game, while Djokovic digressed. In the third game, Djokovic got something in his eye and received medical attention. Afterward, he seemed distracted. Ancic broke him in the fourth game with a crazy running cross-court forehand, then disappeared in a blur. Djokovic's Wimbledon -- following a quarterfinal performance at the French Open -- confirmed he is a player for the future. At 19, he was the youngest player in the men's draw.

Mario Ancic
AP PhotoMario Ancic takes a nine-match win streak into his quarterfinal showdon against Federer.

Ancic's future comes on Wednesday, weather permitting. He played Federer last month in the French Open quarterfinals and lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in a match far closer than the score suggests.

"To have a chance again on such a big stage to play against Roger … It's a great feeling for me," Ancic said. "I showed again at the end of the tournament I am playing with the great players.

"I was happy that I played in Paris against him. I'm more looking to that match than what happened four years ago. It was a great match in Paris. The first two sets were great tennis. I had a lot of chances."

Ancic knows that Federer is capable of sublime tennis. In one set he was up 2-love and had Federer love-40 on his serve. Federer hit five winners and pulled out the set.

Federer has successfully navigated what he has called one of his toughest Grand Slam draws ever. He has squashed Richard Gasquet, Tim Henman and Nicolas Mahut in nine sets; he is the only male player who has yet to drop a set here. During his 25-match winning streak at Wimbledon, Federer has won 75 of 79 sets.

He is attempting to become only the third man in 93 years, after Borg and Pete Sampras, to win four consecutive Wimbledon singles titles.

"Obviously, he's got the grass court experience," Federer said. "It's going to be a tough match."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.