Nalbandian is one element of surprise

Clay-courter earns spot in semifinals vs. Malisse

Hewitt will play Henman

Wimbledon

July 05, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England - Those who follow tennis are probably asking what is David Nalbandian of Argentina doing in today's men's semifinals?

To be honest, Nalbandian is kind of surprised, too.

How did it happen that a baseliner from a country with seven grass courts got so far, so fast in his first Wimbledon men's main draw?

"I don't know," Nalbandian said after he defeated Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti in yesterday's all-South American quarterfinal, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4.

But it's that kind of men's tournament at this year's Wimbledon, where the unexpected or near-unexpected takes place every day.

Today's semifinal presents one match that is predictable - No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia against No. 4 Tim Henman of Britain - and one match that is somewhat unbelievable, Nalbandian against Belgium's Xavier Malisse.

But for all four survivors, there was nothing traditional about the routes taken toward the biggest prize in tennis.

For Hewitt, this almost became the Wimbledon that got away. Against Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, Hewitt failed to convert on four match points in the third set and was upset when the chair umpire overruled a line call that put him down 3-5 in a tiebreaker.

But Hewitt, who hadn't lost a set at this year's Wimbledon, went the distance and won, 6-2, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 1-6, 7-5.

"I'm 21. I'm sure I'm going to have other chances to do well at Wimbledon," Hewitt said.

But this Wimbledon could be his for the taking, though today he'll have to face Henman and a British crowd aching for the first British men's Wimbledon champion since 1936.

"I've played well when I haven't had the crowd on my side," Hewitt said.

Henman reached his fourth Wimbledon semifinal by defeating Brazil's Andre Sa, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. The match, which was halted by rain and darkness Wednesday after one set, turned Sa's way when the baseliner turned into a serve-and-volley specialist to claim the second set.

But Henman, who has transformed what should be easy matches into difficult tests, rallied to win. He also continued shedding his image as a stiff-upper-lip Brit and pumped his fist repeatedly.

"You know, apologies again if I'm showing too much emotion on the court," he said with a laugh.

Malisse ended the remarkable run of 1996 champion Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands, winning, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7. Krajicek, out for 18 months with elbow problems, used his big serves to advance further than expected. He was set to go on vacation in Wimbledon's second week. But he was still around and nearly in the semifinals - not bad for a player whose last singles victory before Wimbledon was in November 2000.

But in the 15th game of the final set, his nerves and serve gave way, as he double-faulted to fall behind 7-8. Malisse then served out the match.

"One day of tennis too many," Krajicek said.

The most intriguing quarterfinal was the match of clay-courters, Lapentti and Nalbandian. And they were shoved out to Court Two.

"It's a bit stunning that we made it to the quarters," Lapentti said. "But I think it's also stunning that a quarterfinal match is played on Court Two."

Nalbandian may be more comfortable playing on clay, but he has an affection for Wimbledon and grass. He became only the second South American semifinalist in Wimbledon history - Peru's Alex Olmedo won in 1959. He also became the second man to reach the semifinal in his Wimbledon men's debut. John McEnroe performed the feat in 1977.

Nalbandian appeared at Wimbledon once before, reaching the junior boys semifinal in 1999. But he didn't show up on time for the semifinal match and was defaulted.

"For me, it was terrible," he said. "But the life has revenge and I am here again, semifinals again, so it's not so bad."

How early will he get to Wimbledon for today's match?

"I think I'm going to sleep here," he said.

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