- Whit Sheppard
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WIMBLEDON, England -- One match got under way on a packed Centre Court with the usually heavy international media contingent filling out the press box. The other began on Court 1 filled to about 75 percent capacity with 10 members of the Fourth Estate squeezing their way into the 60 or so available press seats.
Call it the Federer -- or perhaps the Bjorkman or Stepanek -- effect. Wednesday at the All England Club, all eyes -- or at least the vast majority of them -- were trained on the men's quarterfinal between the top seed, three-time defending champion Roger Federer, and the last man to beat him on grass, Croatia's Mario Ancic.
Meanwhile, the two oldest players left in the men's draw, No. 14 seed Radek Stepanek, 27, of the Czech Republic and unseeded Swede Jonas Bjorkman, 34, battled in relative anonymity across the way for a place in the final four.
All those eyes trained on what became a routine Federer grass-court demolition job missed one of the most compelling matches of this fortnight. Bjorkman prevailed 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 6-4 in just more than four hours to advance to his first Grand Slam semifinal since the 1997 U.S. Open.
"I just want to enjoy every moment of this one," said an elated Bjorkman, who danced a memorable jig on the court after sealing his win. "This is the best tournament. [It shows] you can never give up, fight to the last point."
Stepanek, despite serving 20 aces and being cheered on by his girlfriend, Martina Hingis, was done in by 56 unforced errors, compared to his opponent's 26.
Ancic had gotten the best of Federer as a qualifier in a first-round match in 2002, and no player has dented the Federer armor here since. His 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 7 Ancic propelled him into his 11th Grand Slam semifinal in the last 12 contested (the exception: a third-round loss at the 2004 French Open) and upped his 2006 record to 54-4.
That's a '95-96 Chicago Bulls pace in a sport in which there are no teammates to pick you up on a down day. If not for Rafael Nadal's four consecutive wins over Federer this year, he would be undefeated.
2001 Wimbledon winner Goran Ivanisevic, a longtime mentor to Ancic, said of Federer, "It's tough to play against Roger, he's just too good. Nobody can beat him. Maybe only the car on the way to the tournament." Ivanisevic quickly added that he was only kidding about that last part.
Federer sounded confident afterward. "I thought I played a terrific match," he said. "If I keep up this type of play, it should be pretty good [for me]."
Federer and Ancic squared off a month ago at the French Open, with Federer also winning in straight sets, but Ancic was more impressed with his opponent's game Wednesday on the Wimbledon grass.
"I think he played unbelievable today," said Ancic, 22. "We play in quarters in [the] French. He was in much better shape today. I knew that I'm playing good enough tennis, being aggressive. I continued to fight. I continued to search for solutions. But there's not much you can say."
Asked if Federer can be beaten here, Ancic said, "At the moment, the way he is playing now, I don't think [so]. I think I [would] be very, very surprised."
Long after Federer and Ancic had discharged their media obligations, Bjorkman and Stepanek were still at it in a seesaw match that began shortly after 1 p.m. London time, was delayed twice by light rain, and concluded shortly before 8 p.m.
Stepanek had a match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker, but the Swede fended it off and forced a decisive fifth set. In the fifth, Bjorkman grabbed an early break and held a 3-1 lead before Stepanek came back to lead 4-3. Bjorkman then broke again to go up 5-4 before holding serve to close out the match.
Bjorkman, the winner of nine Grand Slam doubles titles, including three Wimbledons with his current coach, Todd Woodbridge, will attempt to offer more than token resistance to Federer in Friday's first semifinal.
Said Federer before the outcome of the Bjorkman-Stepanek match was known: "You don't want to underestimate anybody, [but] I'm obviously a big favorite for the upcoming semifinal no matter who wins. Both could be tricky on grass. They have the experience and the all-around game.
"If I keep this sort of a performance, I don't see myself losing."
Tennis fans rarely lose when they're holding tickets to a full slate of men's quarterfinals at Wimbledon. That said, those holding places for Wednesday's least-heralded quarterfinal were definite winners today.
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Roger Federer breezed past Mario Ancic and into the Wimbledon semifinals. Whit Sheppard writes that while all eyes were on Centre Court, two unsung men played one of the most memorable matches of the tournament on Court 1.