Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Pioline primed to pounce on the local hero

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JUST IN case, in the euphoria of yesterday's win, everyone assumes Tim Henman is a shoo-in into the semi-finals, it ought to be pointed out that the 1997 runner-up stands between him and a probable meeting with Pete Sampras. And one who is playing well.

Cedric Pioline is not a seed but he has removed two al ready - Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Karol Kucera yesterday - and his record on grass in the past few weeks stands comparison with anyone. He reached the quarter-finals at Queen's and won at Nottingham, having lost his serve only once.

Yesterday the 30-year-old Frenchman completed a 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6- 3 win over Kucera and, but for a minor altercation with a photographer, is feeling about as chipper as he could be.

"When I got to the final in '97 I didn't have a chance because Sampras was playing so well," he said at Nottingham, "but if I get some luck at Wimbledon this time, who knows?"

Getting the local favourite may not strike everyone as fortunate but Pioline saw it differently. "I prefer to play Henman," he said, "because it's a bigger match. It will be a special match, much better than playing in the first round on Court 14."

Pioline must hope he keeps his cool, because his temper cost him a place at the Nottingham Open last year for abusive language and he was clearly upset on Court No 3 yesterday. He was anxious to play the incident down afterwards, however, saying only: "I didn't see it."

They used to say much the same about Goran Ivanisevic's shots but despite a game made for grass it is becoming increasingly unlikely he will win Wimbledon.

Yesterday the man with the serve so strong it ought to be spelt severe, was beaten by Todd Martin and, at the age of 27, time is running out. Three losing finals could be the high water mark.

The 10th seed lost the fourth-round match 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 and once he had surrendered the first-set tiebreak he rarely looked capable of turning it around. "I didn't do anything to at least try to play," he said. "I was pretty slow and I didn't return well. Every volley I was panicking." Apart from that he played quite well.

Martin, the eighth seed, is no mean server himself as the British Davis Cup team found to their cost in March, but yesterday it was his all-round play that impressed. "I had a bad day," Ivanisevic said, "and that's bad luck against Todd, because he's too good."

People think that about defending champion Sampras most days and yesterday was no exception as he crushed Daniel Nestor 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 and could enjoy his post-match lunch by 1.30pm.

The No.1 seed might have been put off by being shifted to Court Two; a four-day rain wait might have blunted his game; a pink elephant might have flown over the All England Club.

"I couldn't be happier with the way I'm playing," he said. "Court Two's got some bad bounces - there are a couple of peaks and valleys out there - but other than that it was fine."

Had the break disrupted him? "It's not easy," he replied. "It really isn't. When you have one day with a match and one day off you get into a certain rhythm and having four days off is difficult. But it's Wimbledon and everyone's in the same boat."

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