Ancic rises out of shadowland to stalk Federer

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The Independent Online

At the conclusion of a week in which rather too many of the élite have been slipping into oblivion, withering rather than thriving on the vine, the form of Mario Ancic has, almost unnoticed, been ripening in their shadows.

You gain a clue to any player's status in the British public consciousness by the numbers at his post-match press conference in the first week. Victorious Brits will mean a fairly congested main inter-view room, which is the size of a small cinema. So, too, will tournament favourite Roger Federer. Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick rather less so. On Friday, after Ancic had crept under the met-eorological bar on No 1 Court, the French teenager Gaël Monfils, last year's Wimbledon junior champion, capitulating obligingly in the final set before the heavens opened for the first time in the week, the 21-year-old Croatian was reduced to conducting a review of his week in a small ante-chamber, occupied by this observer and around eight of his compatriots. After some interminable questioning in Ancic's native tongue, delivered with what appeared to be some gravitas and a good deal of humour, a member of the Croatian fraternity was asked to reveal what the No 10 seed's most telling comment had been. "This week, on a scale of one to 10 he gives himself seven for his performances," was the reply. "Now that week is over and he is ready for the next."

Which confirms what had not been difficult to discern already, that the Split-born but now Monte Carlo-resident player prefers circumspection to any brash promises as to his championship potential. It does also suggest, though, that, in his own mind, there is much to come from the player, who is equipped with a slingshot of a serve and a quiver-ful of sublime volleys. He is scheduled to meet Marat Safin's conqueror, the Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, tomorrow.

When asked whether he could emulate his countryman Goran Ivanisevic this year, he smiled embarrassedly but refused to reflect on such a fantastic prospect, confining himself to: "I think it's still too early in the tournament [to say that]."

He added: "I mean, I'm playing against a guy who is top 25 [actually 26], who beat Marat, who has been playing his best on grass. He [Lopez] had to play a good match to win that. He [Lopez] likes grass. He made the fourth round last year [third, in fact], you know. And he's a lefty, with a big serve, which is a pretty nice advantage here on grass."

Lopez, from the land of red clay, has prospered on the lawns here where his fellow-countryman Rafael Nadal suffered (though scarcely in silence). That precocious teenager, for whom so much had been predicted, had been less than convincing on the surface against Luxembourg's Gilles Muller, and his glowering antipathy for grass on Thursday suggested that he viewed it as something better suited to locations such as Glastonbury (though not necessarily the kind of stuff they are sitting on there at the moment).

While Ancic prefers to dwell on his opponents' prowess, plenty of other learned judges are prepared to press the claims of the former Wimbledon junior finalist, despite his tender years. Michael Stich, the 1991 champion turned BBC analyst and interviewer, is among those advocates who maintain that the 6ft 5in protégé of Ivanisevic, with whom Ancic has practised since the age of 10, can ascend to the same rarified heights as the 2001 champion. The reason is that Ancic is that rarity, a man capable of defeating Federer on a surface which can be other performers' best friend in one match, only to produce a serious falling-out the next.

Ancic may have been a semi-finalist last year, having defeated Tim Henman in the quarters, but he arrived here relatively content that he is regarded as an appendix in the career of other players - most notably as the man against whom Federer last experienced defeat on grass way back, in lawn tennis terms, in 2002.

He does, though, bristle if you suggest that, despite his achievements, he has yet to create a true impact on the British psyche. "I'm not worried about whether I'm recognised, but I feel there are a lot of people behind me here," he says. "When I hear them all cheering for me and wanting me to win, it's a great feeling."

In this kindergarten - eight teenagers, including Andy Murray, had participated at the start of the tournament - Ancic has almost attained the status of senior citizen. He may not have been around the block that many times, but he has certainly put a few miles on the clock. In 2002, Federer, then the No 9 seed, was defeated by Ancic in the first round, and on Centre Court, no less. It earned him the distinction of being the first teenager to win on his Wimbledon debut on Centre Court since Bjorn Borg in 1973.

His dispatch of the 18-year-old Monfils, last year's No 1 junior, was savage - and relatively brief, ensuring that Ancic can luxuriate in a two-day break. The young Frenchman, accorded after the denouement an ovation by the No 1 Court crowd, displayed sufficient variation of shot to commend him as a player of genuine promise, but was simply overpowered on a day when the Czech Thomas Berdych, another teenager in the top half of the draw, also failed to progress. Last year here, Ancic progressed to his first Grand Slam semi-final, defeating Tim Henman on the way, before colliding to his cost with Roddick, but this season claimed his first career title at the Ordina Open, on grass, in Den Bosch.

Unlike a Henman, or a Murray, the Croatian can continue his emergence at his own pace, not exactly amid a blackout but, for the moment, with the spotlights dimmed. Defeat of Lopez could result in a quarter-final against Hewitt, who with a first child and marriage impending, appears relaxed and on excellent terms with himself, never mind that the All England Club's computer has realigned the world No 2 and 2002 Wimbledon champion as No 3 seed and confronted him with some daunting opponents in the top half of the draw.

Among them, Ancic lies in wait...

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