Martin the target for local hero

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The Independent Online
One of the most unpredictable Wimbledons of recent times carried on producing unpleasant shocks for the leading men yesterday when third round defeats for Wayne Ferreira and Marc Rosset took to 10 the number of seeded players who departed the men's singles in the first week. Even Pete Sampras, a four-sets winner over the Slovak, Karol Kucera, did not look immune to the virus.

The bottom half of the draw now has only one seed left in it, Todd Martin of the United States, who had a comfortable win over the Italian Renzo Furlan. At least one unseeded player is guaranteed to reach the semi-finals, and the once unthinkable possibility that a British player might figure in the later stages continued to grow as Tim Henman duly finished off his compatriot Luke Milligan and moved into the last 16.

There he will meet Magnus Gustafsson of Sweden, who beat Ferreira, the No 11 seed from South Africa, in five sets. If Henman wins that, a quarter- final meeting with Martin is in prospect. English exploits in Euro 96 may yet have to take second place to this remarkable young man from Oxford.

At 29, Gustafsson is a hardened pro, ranked 37 to Henman's 61. This, however, is only his fifth Wimbledon, and the first in which he has progressed beyond the second round. The match-up with Henman - the two have never met - looks even, although the Englishman will have noted the way the durable Gustafsson kept his nerve after winning the first two sets against Ferreira and then losing the next two. He finally came through 7-6 7-5 1-6 5-7 6-1.

Gustafsson came out with some lavish praise for Henman afterwards. "I'm impressed with his game," he said. "He's a man for the future, that's for sure. He reminds me a little bit of Sampras the way he plays. He needs to have a little bit better serve, though, and then he can take the big step. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think he's ready yet to be among the really best, but he's definitely on his way, and he will make it for sure." The bit about the serve could have been more generous. At a top speed of 123mph, Henman comes in seventh on the list of fastest servers on the Centre Court, only 3mph behind Sampras.

Rosset, the 6ft 7in Swiss who was seeded 14, fell in a tense, fluctuating No 1 Court encounter to the resurgent Australian Patrick Rafter. Two years ago, Rafter was tennis's next big thing, with the looks to go with it. But from being ranked as high as 20, he fell out of the top 100, split up with his coach Bob Carmichael, injured his wrist, and, at 22, his future seemed all behind him.

Under the tutelage of another former Australian great, Tony Roche, Rafter has worked his way back up to 77 in the rankings, and in reaching Wimbledon's last 16 has equalled his best ever performance in a Grand Slam event, at the 1995 Australian Open. A performance of growing authority ended with Rafter winning 4-6 6-3 4-6 6-1 6-3.

Sampras, meanwhile, was struggling on the Centre Court against a man he had never met before and whose variety of shot was preventing the three- times champion settling into any kind of rhythm. Kucera is in some ways a poor man's Miloslav Mecir, the Czechoslovak of a few years back whose feather-touch was one of the wonders of the game. He served and returned beautifully, covered the court, and guided the ball to places Sampras had not thought of.

Sampras should still have seen him off in three sets. But he got himself into a tie-break in the third, and started making the sort of basic errors it was hard to believe were emanating from his racket. Set-point to Kucera was a good example, a high but still comfortable backhand volley which Sampras carelessly dumped beyond the baseline.

It got worse before it got better as Kucera went into a 3-0 and then a 4-1 lead in the fourth set, and the murmur went round that the biggest upset of the lot could be about to materialise. But then Sampras remembered just enough of what had made him a great champion. He broke back in the seventh game, kept going until the tie-break, and his instinct for victory did the rest.

"One moment I thought I had him, the next I didn't," Sampras said. "My form didn't seem like it was as good as it's been. I got through, but it wasn't pretty. It's always tough when you play someone for the first time. It was a match you just want to get through." Sampras is now on course for a quarter-final meeting with Michael Stich of Germany, who is maintaining his French Open form with ease. Sandon Stolle, son of Fred, was the in-form Australian Stich came up against on the No 2 court, but Stich won in four sets.

The others who joined him in the last 16 were Goran Ivanisevic, Cedric Pioline, a second Australian in Jason Stoltenberg, the fast-rising German Alex Radulescu, the Dutchmen Richard Krajicek and Paul Haarhuis, and the veteran Czech-born Swiss player Jakob Hlasek, who equalled his best Wimbledon performance on his 14th visit.

Exactly half the women's seeds are left after the departure of Anke Huber of Germany. The No 5 seed went out tamely to Ai Sugiyama of Japan, but for Huber's compatriot, Steffi Graf, 41 minutes was enough for her to overcome Nicole Arendt. Graf now meets Martina Hingis in the fourth round. That could be interesting. Hingis lost to Graf in the first round last year but is one of only two players to beat her in 1996 this year, at the Italian Open in May.