Ancic finds the strength to set up match with Feder

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The Independent Online

Just what you need to set yourself up for a quarter-final with perhaps the greatest player ever to hold a racket: a withering, wrenching five-set epic, over nearly four hours in the slavering heat of the afternoon. But if the last man to beat Roger Federer here proves unable to do so again, it will only be his limbs that fail him, not his heart.

Mario Ancic was often down in his match with Fernando Verdasco, but he was never, ever out. Not even when, having lost the first two sets, he served consecutive double faults and was broken to love in the fourth. Down 1-4, somehow he clawed his way back into the match, and while the tennis became too frayed in a savage, 94-minute final set for the match to warrant classic status, the same is not true of his quite stupendous exhibition of willpower.

For while both men, at 24, might be expected to be in their physical prime, Ancic's medical history could be extended simply by trying to pick it up. By a poignant coincidence, last year he suffered a similar bout of glandular fever to the one that caused the recent corrosion of Federer's game. Ancic dropped out of the tour for six months, and his rehabilitation since has been an unhappy, staccato business of injury and illness. Ranked number seven the world just two years ago, Ancic had shrivelled down to 136 by January.

But he beat one flourishing Spaniard, David Ferrer, in the third round and has now accounted for another in Verdasco. In the process he reiterated his status as the heir to his compatriot, Goran Ivanisevic, in the affections of the Wimbledon crowd.

For he does not merely qualify as a tennis dinosaur on account of that first-round defeat of Federer, which seems to place him some time in the late Cretaceous period. (It was actually in 2002.) Ancic is also something of a throwback to the days when serves exploded out of the sky before disappearing into some giant, on rushing shadow at the net.

Having a game so well suited to grass, it is tempting to depict him here as a giant herbivore, harried by some bloodthirsty raptor. But Ancic is no lumbering diplodocus. His long legs can move around the court with something approaching languor, though they became infected with increasing urgency as the left hand of his opponent sprayed passes from the baseline with all the precision of Cesc Fabregas.

For long periods Verdasco certainly borrowed from the swagger of his compatriots in Vienna the previous evening. In his jaunty, pectoral style, he blazed into a two-set lead with the confidence of a man who has just posed nude for Cosmopolitan. Ancic, in contrast, found mournful sanctuary under his towel during breaks, or addressed sardonic observations to himself in the manner of a Croatian Withnail. But this became a match to strip the souls of both men bare.

In the end, after trading breaks and tense service holds like punchdrunk boxers, the whole match was distilled by its final two exchanges. Ancic had earned himself three match points, but one had already slipped away when, with his opponent stranded, he came to the net and prodded the ball straight into it. Everyone could sense that it was now or never, not least Ancic: first his nerve failed him in the toss, which he caught with an apology; and then, summoning one last, supreme effort, he bisected the centreline with his 15th and final ace.

Verdasco, stunned, left with indecorous but understandable haste. He had flayed his forehands like a winnowing machine, but was left to repent rather too many wild, inattentive shots at critical moments.

Perhaps Ancic had been goaded, earlier in the game, to hear the Centre Court crowd's distant adoration as Federer dealt serenely with another inveterate scrapper. The applause would drift out to Court 11 like shingle in a retreating tide. When he stands before the champion again tomorrow, on a stage he has made his own, Ancic may well feel like King Canute. But he will at least feel a true king.