Villain turns hero in B movie epic

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The Independent Online
Anyone who has spent an evening playing charades and heard the noises of a party coming through the wall would know how MaliVai Washington and Alex Radulescu felt yesterday, writes Guy Hodgson. What they were doing was interesting enough but you could not help feeling you were missing out on something.

No 1 Court yesterday was near but so far from where Wimbledon's pulse beat yesterday. The nation was watching Tim Henman; the glances towards the other place were mainly to see who the great British hope might play in the semi-finals. Washington, 20th in the world, and Radulescu, 91st, was the B movie going on simultaneously with the main event.

And it showed. It may have been a shock to see the empty spaces on Centre Court as Henman took on Todd Martin, but on No 1 Court at 11am the surprise was that any seats were filled at all. Just a few isolated souls watched the start and they looked as if they had petrified during the few patches of play the night before.

Rain had been the problem then and it was a factor again because as the court filled up so did the sky and within 90 minutes of listening to the oohs and aahs from Centre Court the more familiar noise this Wimbledon of drips on canvas began to drown everything else out.

By then Radulescu had taken the advantage by winning the first set tie- break 7-5 but if he hoped to keep his momentum going in the race to become the first unseeded semi-finalist since John McEnroe four years ago, he had no chance. The players were on and off like an indicator.

In this staccato fashion the match stop-started to one set all, Washington taking the second tie-break 7-1. If the events had been farcical so far though, they resembled the height of reason compared to what happened the third time the players took to the grass.

One of the more infuriating aspects of this rain-damned tournament has been the need for a knock-up. With the windows in the weather lasting seconds, it has become standard procedure for players to practise their serves, their groundstrokes and their volleys and just as they have been ready to do the thing for real, the heavens have opened.

You would think was irksome enough but Radulescu, in his first Grand Slam tournament, had one further way to irritate. The players warmed-up, the umpire was ready to start and the German disappeared into the tunnel for a call of nature. Perhaps the 21-year old was nervous, but when he performed the same trick on the resumption but one, it was not only Washington who was fed up and Radulescu was booed back on to the court when he reappeared. Before the politest crowd in British sport the reaction was almost unprecedented.

Not even in pantomime, however, did a villain become a hero so quickly. At 4-4 in the final set a Washington volley was called out to the American's dismay. The umpire confirmed the decision and it was only when Radulescu announced the ball good that justice was done. From a point of derision, the German was given a standing ovation.

"I turned around and he had given me the point which was, Jees, admirable. I think only one guy in the tour would have done that and it was him. I told him that after the match.''

Would he ever do that? "Jees, I knew that question was coming. Actually I've done it before if it's a blatant call. I've never had that happen at 4-4 in the fifth set. If it ever happens in a Wimbledon quarter-final then we'll see my reaction.''

Henman had come and gone on Centre Court, Sampras was going the same way but the sub-plot had reached a deciding set. By the time Washington won 6-7, 7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 and saved two match points, the contest had taken on an epic quality. The B film was watchable, too.