Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Manta's reviving miracle

The outsiders: Exploits of Dokic and Manta have opened up path to final for others
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The Independent Online
MAJOR UPSETS at Wimbledon create a state of excitement and confusion, as was the case last Tuesday, after Martina Hingis, the world No 1, was eliminated in the first round of the women's singles by Jelena Dokic

Having interrogated Hingis, a group of journalists gathered outside the interview room, discussing among themselves the implications of the event. Word came that Dokic was arriving, and the "quotarie" dashed back inside to their seats, notebooks ready.

Puzzled looks crossed their faces when a fellow of 6ft 3inch wearing tennis gear and with his cap turned back-to-front, ducked into the interview room and sat in the seat the 16-year-old Dokic was supposed to be occupying.

An awkward silence was broken when one of the reporters explained that we thought Dokic was due. There was a longer silence.

"What did you think of your match today?" your correspondent ventured, trying to be helpful.

"Well, I think it was a very close match," the interviewee responded, "especially the first three sets, three tie-breakers, and then I got off to a better start in the fourth set, which helped me a lot, and I kept holding my serve."

Silence again, as your correspondent smiled and nodded vacantly

A Swiss colleague spoke up. "I'm not sure," he told the player, "if he knows whether you won or lost."

"Well, I won," he said. "I won in four."

"So it was a good day?"

"It was a good day, yes."

Questions and answers followed in Swiss-German.

Happily, Lorenzo Manta was back in the hot seat on Saturday. Nobody wondered who he was, or who he had beaten. The words fell over themselves as the 24-year-old qualifier from Winthertur, ranked No 196 in the world, was asked to explain how it felt to have advanced to the second week, having eliminated Richard Krajicek, the 1996 champion and No 5 seed, 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4.

It was a feat, all agreed, far removed from last week's invitation to meet the press after a four-set victory against Tom Spinks, a Briton with a wild card, ranked No 597.

Frankly, the Swiss could not believe that Manta was still on the premises, having admired his style, which is tailored for grass, but wondered if he would ever have what it takes to win matches, particularly in view of his history of injuries to a shoulder, elbow, and hand.

Installed as the Dokic of the men's draw, Manta is looking forward to another good day today, when he meets Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian former French Open champion, who has yet to drop a set after finally finding his feet on grass.

Whatever else Manta may achieve, he has lifted a weight off a good many shoulders. Krajicek was strongly fancied to serve and return his way to the title, as he did three years ago, after defeating Sampras in the quarter-finals.

What an unexpected bonus it is for the survivors from the lower half of the draw to know that one of the chief danger men has gone. Krajicek's departure should put even more of a swagger in Andre Agassi's step when the Las Vegan plays Wayne Arthurs, a 28-year-old Australian qualifier, ranked No 163, who cleared Tommy Haas, the German No 14 seed, from the path to the quarter-finals.

Goran Ivanisevic, who has been frustrated in three finals, and Todd Martin, whose nerve faltered in the semi-finals three years ago, when he should have joined Krajicek in the final, have been given renewed hope that this may be their year, even though one of the them will have to face Pat Rafter or Boris Becker in the quarters.

Hingis's elimination has had a similar effect on the top half of the women's draw, although the contenders have had longer to ponder their opportunities. Jana Novotna, who arrived with a dodgy ankle, will not be able to see too many rivals good enough on grass to prevent her from continuing her title defence, at least to the final.

Lindsay Davenport, the No 3 seed, who in past has appeared to have lacked the mobility to win at Wimbledon, may be starting to grow in confidence, as she did to win the United States Open title last September. The trouble is that Davenport, provided she overcomes Austria's Barbara Schett, the No 14 seed, is likely to have to play Novotna.

Dokic has stuttered through her last two matches, as though pinching herself to see if she really did trounce Hingis, will do well to overcome Mary Pierce, the No 9 seed and a survivor of the parent trap. Pierce could hardly have anticipated that Dokic, followed by either Lisa Raymond or Alex Stevenson, would be the players standing in her path to the semi- finals.

In the lower half of the draw, Nathalie Tauziat, the No 8 seed, who was so determined not to lose early after reaching the final last year, meets Belgium's Dominique Van Roost, the No 15 seed, in an interesting fourth round match. The winner will play Mirjana Lucic, the sturdy Croat who eliminated Monica Seles, or Tamarine Tanasugarn, who has proved to be more than a Thai tongue-twister.

Steffi Graf, the French Open champion, has had a wonderful time so far. If playing mixed doubles with John McEnroe does not improve her net-play, nothing will. Graf's fourth round match against Kim Clijsters, the 16- year-old Dutch prospect, should tone the seven-times champion for more demanding contests. The winner of this afternoon's second showcase match on the Centre Court, between Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova, is likely to be Graf's quarter- final opponent, a prospect to savour.

Williams appears to have made herself more at home this year, on the court and off. She has the physique to overpower opponents as emphatically on grass as she has, from time to time, on the medium-paced concrete courts of America and the slow clay of Europe. And if Williams should run into Novotna again, it would not be before Saturday's final.