At 22, Voltchkov a qualified success story

No. 1 Sampras next for first male qualifier to gain semis since '77

July 06, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -This one is for the qualifiers with big dreams, the sports fans searching for a romantic yarn.

On a cold, gray day when multimillionaire stars Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter blasted through to Wimbledon's men's semifinals, a blue-eyed Belarussian in borrowed baggy shorts and on a budget barreled his way into a match of a lifetime.

Vladimir Voltchkov defeated Byron Black, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, yesterday and became the first Wimbledon men's qualifier to reach the semifinals since John McEnroe in 1977.

He earned a semifinal Centre Court match tomorrow against No. 1 seeded Sampras, the six-time champion who was pushed to four sets before beating fellow American Jan-Michael Gambill, 6-4, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-4.

No. 2 Agassi ended the remarkable, hard-serving run of No. 10 Mark Philippoussis, ousting Australia's Scud, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-4.

Next up for Agassi is a difficult semifinal against No. 12 Patrick Rafter, who defeated Alexander Popp, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-1).

Voltchkov's trek from qualifier to Centre Court is one of those once-a-generation teasers that Wimbledon tosses up. He's 22, with chubby cheeks and a little-boy haircut.

And in tennis history, he's the new McEnroe, minus the tantrums.

"He's lefty, I'm righty," Voltchkov said of comparisons to McEnroe. "He's serve-and-volleyer, I probably stay back more. I guess there is really no comparision. I guess the only thing we have in common now is the result here."

Raised in Minsk, trained by his father on a tennis court at an auto parts factory, the once bright junior star won Wimbledon's junior title in 1996. But as a pro, his career stalled and he landed on the Challenger Tour, the minor leagues of men's tennis.

But suddenly, Voltchkov, ranked 237th in the world, has caught lightning in 2 1/2 weeks, surviving Wimbledon's rugged qualifying tournament by winning three matches, and rolling through the main draw with five wins.

When he came out for his match on Court 1 against Black, he looked like a recreation player, wearing a shorts and top with different logos, an unusual sight in a sport where corporate branding is almost as important as winning and losing. But Voltchkov doesn't have endorsement deals.

`The shorts actually were from [tour star] Marat Safin, because I came here without any new clothes," Voltchkov said.

What about the shoes? They were a given to him by a manufacturer.

He admits that he has been watching his cash flow here. Although he can afford to eat in restaurants, he prefers his father's cooking. Other than going out for walks, he has been spending time at the movie theater.

"I went to see `Gladiator' four times already," he said. "I prefer to spend my money there."

Black pressed him, but eventually gave way when he hyperextended his left knee and required a tape job after the second set.

"He's a flashy player," Black said. `That was the frustrating thing. When I thought I had him, he would hit some great shots. When it was time for him to sort of finish me off, he sort of hesitated. He plays up and down."

How will Voltchkov fare against Sampras?

"I think with the way Pete's playing, I don't think this guy could really hurt him," Black said.

Voltchkov remains hopeful, though, that he can spring off one more surprise and keep his remarkable Wimbledon story alive.

"I mean, we're talking about probably the great player of all times here," Voltchkov said. "It's difficult to find any weaknesses. Pete is a kind of player who, if he's in a good mood, he can play unbelievable in any part of the game."

He just wants to play well when he ventures on to Sampras' Centre Court turf.

Sampras admitted that he has never seen Voltchkov play, and, sounding a lot like a football coach, talked of watching his next opponent on videotape.

"Obviously, to get to the semifinals of a [Grand] Slam, like he has, is very impressive," Sampras said. "It might take me awhile to feel his game out. It is difficult."

Despite his sore left shin, Sampras continued to roll yesterday in a tricky match against Gambill, a hard-serving, hard-hitting, 23-year-old who already knocked off two seeds en route to the quarterfinals.

"You're looking at the future of American tennis," Sampras said of Gambill.

For now, though, the present belongs to Sampras and Agassi.

"These two seem to stand out the most because they've done it over, over and over for so many years, have won so many Slams, have been No. 1, done this and that," Gambill said. `They've always been up there, always in the spotlight. They handle it very well."

The Agassi-Philippoussis confrontation was the most anticipated of the quarterfinals. But it turned into one of those turgid men's matches that Wimbledon's grass often creates. This time, though, Philippoussis, the hard server who has survived two marathon Wimbledon wins, met his match against Agassi, the game's great returner.

"You can't ask one person to have it all," Agassi said. "You can't serve 140 miles an hour and be fast and think well. It just wouldn't be right."

Agassi, the self-styled intellectual of the baseline, won the match.

"It feels good," Agassi said of reaching the semifinals. "Quite a shocker."


Men's singles


Andre Agassi (2) def. Mark Philippoussis (10), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4. Patrick Rafter (12) def. Alexander Popp, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1). Vladimir Voltchkov def. Byron Black, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 6-4. Pete Sampras (1) def. Jan-Michael Gambill, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4.

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