Martin stands tall and shows speed is not everything

Occasional brilliance cannot hide Kuerten's discomfort on grass as dangerous unseeded American uses accurate serve to perfection
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The Independent Online

An upset of sorts unfolded on Court One yesterday in the second round of the men's singles, as the 17th seed and three-times French Open champion, Gustavo Kuerten, was ejected in straight sets by the American Todd Martin, whose 6ft 6in frame entitled him to the description "giant" until the emergence of Lleyton Hewitt's conqueror Ivo Karlovic, who is nigh on five inches taller. Martin must make do now with being merely "very tall".

His 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory was not that surprising. The Brazilian is still recovering from hip surgery and his distaste for grass is almost that of a man forced to eat it rather than play on it, whereas Martin is twice a Wimbledon semi-finalist, and in 1996, at 5-1 up in the fifth set against MaliVai Washington, was probably in the process of deciding what underpants to wear on finals day. His subsequent 10-8 defeat remains one of the more spectacular collapses ever seen at these championships.

Yesterday, however, he managed not to drop a single serve, which was a significant achievement, for even on his least favourite surface the 26-year-old from the aptly glamorous-sounding town of Florianopolis showed glimpses of rare artistry. It was especially nice to see backhands propelled by just the one limb in this era of double-fisted bludgeoning.

Martin, though, is a deceptive fellow. At 32 he is a couple of months younger than Andre Agassi, yet he looks like Agassi's grandad. But he plays like nobody's grandad. He can be a devastating serve-volleyer, and although at an average of 115mph his first serves are slower than those of Andy Roddick by about the speed that my mother drives on the inside lane of the M40, they are beautifully placed. Although he has a bigger serve in his repertoire, he says that when he exceeds 130mph he knows he is not serving well, because he is less able to hit his targets. As if to demonstrate this, he aced Kuerten three times in the opening game of the match, at 115mph, 116mph and 117mph.

After that, a double-fault to go break-point down at 2-2 was as vulnerable as Martin got in the first set. The impression that he was playing within himself, whereas his opponent was giving it his all, was rather compounded by Kuerten's curious grunt, a protracted exhalation which sounded like someone taking a punch in the solar plexus.

The first set passed without incident and without a break of serve, Martin winning the tie-break 7-3. But during that tie-break the first rain of the Championships began to fall and play was suspended, leading to the most exciting spectacle of the afternoon so far, as the ground staff got the choreography wrong during their dash with the covers. A Keystone Kops routine ensued, much to the crowd's enjoyment. It doesn't take much to entertain Wimbledon crowds; errant pigeons are made to feel like Billy Connolly at the Glasgow Empire. So the Keystone Kops were predictably well received.

Play resumed after 32 minutes, and followed the same pattern as before, although in the third game Martin secured, and won, a rare break point. His height is a huge advantage on a grass court, for he can make it from baseline to net in five loping strides, and did so to great effect. Nor is a man with his enormous reach easy to pass at the net. But Kuerten, at 6ft 3in, is no shrimp, either. And there are people who tickle trout less subtly than he executes the drop shot.

But for all his occasional brilliance, Kuerten, whose flamboyant headband conjured memories of the late Nina Simone, was narrowly outmanoeuvred by a man who is more of your Val Doonican.

If a non-seed is to reach the latter stages again this year, then it could be Martin as easily as anyone else. The man from Michigan has twice reached Grand Slam finals - the Australian Open in 1994 and the US Open in 1999 - but nowhere has he won as many matches as at Wimbledon. Kuerten, whose first Wimbledon this was since 2000, understandably prefers Roland Garros, where he is a huge favourite. After winning his third French Open there in 2001, he drew a heart in the clay to express his appreciation for the crowd's support. Maybe that's another reason he favours clay. By the time he had used Robinson's Barley Water to trickle a heart on the grass, the crowd would have gone home.

That said, he had plenty of support here, notably from a bunch of people wearing Brazilian football shirts. "Guga" is a huge favourite in Brazil, almost up there with Ronaldo, Pele, and the late Ayrton Senna. But his fans could have no complaints as Martin closed out the second set - closely watched by Jane Henman, Tim's mum, who appeared to be taking notes - with a pair of aces. The third set then went with serve until the enthralling ninth game, in which Kuerten saved three break points before being beaten by an agonising net-cord in which the ball actually hit the top of the net twice.

It was the lucky break Martin needed.

Martin, who is president of the ATP players' council and thus in the vanguard of the players' dispute with the four Grand Slam events, said that talk of a boycott next year was irresponsible. "But the players feel very strongly that the Grand Slams need to do their share for the professional game," he said, "and that does not just mean prize-money... it means the whole kit and kaboodle."

As for his own prospects this week and next, he said, ominously, that he thinks he is playing better than he played when he reached the last four. "I think when I'm sharp I can compete with anybody," he said. "Especially here."

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