"How did Henman lose to him?" Even the spotty ball boys were laughing at the dishevelled appearance of Russia's deceptively good tennis player Dmitry Tursunov when he stepped back on to court yesterday. Tursunov looked like he had spent some of his second-round winnings from beating Tiger Tim on some new tennis shoes. But he is still lacking a recognised sponsor, as was proved by the mismatch of a baggy Wimbledon shirt, some greying old shorts and raggedy socks still sporting stains from the clay-court season. His newish rackets, at least, looked in good nick.
"That's the guy who beat Henman," said a knowing schoolboy more respectfully. They knew less of his 6ft 7in German opponent, Alexander Popp.
"That's Popp," said the same youth.
"What's so special about him?" asked his mate.
"He's really tall and it sounds funny when you say Popp!" Well, there are few laughs on court yesterday from the man who lost to the man who beat the man, following a 7-5 6-7 2-6 2-6 defeat in two hours and 33 minutes.
The kids knew about Henman's conqueror, but obviously were less clued up on the closest Wimbledon could offer Glastonbury in the form of Brit-Popp. Forget Henmania and Andymonium, because Popp, having reached at least the last 16 on his three previous Wimbledon appearances, represented the most realistic remaining chance of British success at The Championships. Popp, 28, has a British passport because his mum, Jennifer, comes from Wolverhampton. That he represents Germany, swears in German and lives in Germany disguises his dual nationality. That he is one of life's sporting losers and blew a chance to win this match gives the game away.
Popp won the first set and had a good opportunity in the second before fading into obscurity for another year. "Wimbledon, where reputations are made and dreams fade," as Jimmy Connors remarked last week.
Tursunov, 22, the Russian who wants to defect to America where he has lived in Granite Bay, California, for the past 10 years, is hardly made of rock. The Russian, who was bidding to reach the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the first time, broke a vertebra in a boating accident on 4 July last year. That loss of independence came two years after he recovered from a wrongly diagnosed back injury in 2002 that turned out to be a double fracture. No wonder this match was not high on quality and was punctuated with unforced errors - 76 in total.
Tursunov is as competitive as he is scruffy, though, and it is great to see a player who looks like he plays in the local park now through to the fourth round of the world's greatest tennis tournament with at least £44,100 in prize-money already banked. Another win, against France's Sebastien Grosjean, and he can double that sum.
Tursunov said: "The money will come in handy, maybe I'll get a new stereo for my car. I don't think the sponsors will come knocking at my door because at 22 I'm too old to be a prodigy. I'm down to my last two rackets so I'll have to be careful not to break them."
Tursunov broke in the fourth game of the first set but allowed Popp back in to sneak it 7-5 after 43 minutes of average baseline play. Popp went close to putting the match away when he had Tursunov at love-40, five-all in the second set only to collapse and allow the Russian eventually to force a tie-break. Popp saved one set point there, but still ran out a 7-5 loser after a long 58-minute set. Tursunov carried the momentum into the third set, which he won in 27 minutes with two breaks. The fourth set went with serve until Tursunov's forehand outgunned Popp in the fifth game and he took a decisive 3-2 lead and served out to love without looking like losing another game.
Just as he did against Henman, Tursunov looked embarrassed in victory. Now he faces a battle for a place in the quarter-finals against Grosjean and maybe a bigger stage than Court 14. Having seen off Henman on Centre Court, this battle with Popp was played out in front of a smattering of spectators on a court with just three rows of seats.Reuse content