Beast of Belarus soups up assault

Mirnyi fine-tunes preparation for Bjorkman battle with help from kitchen-friendly father
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The Independent Online

The Americans and the Russians, once dominant powers, are wilting in the face of the onslaught from Europe. The hot war is getting hotter, at least according to James Blake, the Yank who was seeded eight here but who departed in the third round. Before flying home, Blake sounded like a man who was tempted to pop into Ladbrokes and put a fistful of dollars on his conqueror, Max "The Beast" Mirnyi of Belarus.

"He was red hot at the start and he was hot at the end," Blake said. Warming to his subject, he added: "Max Mirnyi is red hot on grass and not a lot of guys are going to beat him - the way he was serving, the way he was volleying, the way he was attacking my second serve. I don't know what else I can say."

Blake, who squandered a two sets to one lead, must have suspected the game was up once the match went to five sets. In his career he has now lost all nine of his five setters but even that doesn't explain his dramatic collapse in the last two sets, which he lost 6-1 6-0. "That was certainly unusual," Mirnyi admitted.

As indeed is the predicament Mirnyi now finds himself in. Yesterday he did not put his feet up but progressed in the doubles with his partner Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden and tomorrow the two will be on opposite sides of the net in the fourth round of the singles.

"It's going to be very, very tricky," Mirnyi said. "It's always tough to play somebody you know so well and share so many good and bad moments on the court with. We've been playing doubles together for close to two years and we certainly know anything there is to know about each other's game. I want to look at it as an incredible opportunity."

Mirnyi, who used to play doubles with Roger Federer (they played in three tournaments and won the lot) will not be socialising with Bjorkman over the weekend. Instead he will stay in the apartment he has rented and have dinner with his father, who is apparently a dab hand at making potato soup.

It is not known what managed to upset the stomach of Mardy Fish but the American was forced to retire in the third round yesterday, leaving Irakli Labadze in splendid isolation as the only qualifier through to the last 16. He had already written a little footnote as the first Georgian to reach the third round here since Alex Metreveli in 1976. Labadze joins his fellow left-hander Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round.

Labadze, who came through the qualifying tournament at Roehampton, had never won successive matches on grass before. He took the first set 6-2 before Fish, who won the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, withdrew, complaining of sickness. Labadze now meets the No 2 seed Rafael Nadal in the fourth round.

Dmitry Tursunov, the only Russian still standing, also progressed although he had a somewhat more daunting task than the Georgian. Tursunov was up against the No 5 seed, Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia and he produced a monumental fightback to reach the last 16.

Tursunov had never before recovered from two sets down but he did yesterday on Court One, taking the last three sets 6-1 7-6 6-2. Tursunov, who had a back injury last year, gradually wore down the Croatian with the weight and power of his game. His uninhibited approach is very much hit or miss but when he's hot he's up there with the Beast of Belarus.

"My philosophy is to fire 16 bullets with the hope that one or two hit the target," he said. And to think he lost to Tim Henman in straight sets in the Stella Artois at Queen's.

As for Mad Max, he was also celebrating, albeit with a modest soup, one of his more notable achievements. He is an old fashioned serve and volleyer and he likes the place and the pace. "I feel comfortable out there," he said. "This is my first experience in Wimbledon singles and when you put everything together it all makes it very special. Maybe as big as having a five-set victory for your country in the Davis Cup."

There is no secret to Mirnyi's success. The coach Nick Bollettieri once said that he never worked with anybody who worked harder than Mirnyi. "It's great to hear that from Nick but he's had some very hard-working horses during his career," said Mirnyi.

"More than anything I enjoy being out there. I like working out and I try to make the best of what I can." Bjorkman knows exactly what to expect.