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Teen Lives a Dream

Tennis: Ancic, 18, upsets seventh-seeded Federer in three sets to go from little-known qualifier to 'Super Mario.'

June 26, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WIMBLEDON, England — The voice sounded so familiar, with its accent and cadence. The owner of the voice also possessed a powerful first serve, averaging 125 mph in his first-round match.

And so, if defending Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic couldn't be here to play on Centre Court, then perhaps his spirit was lurking around the All England Club. Cosmic forces, it seemed, had conspired to bring the next-best thing, Ivanisevic's Croatian protege, 18-year-old Mario Ancic.

Tuesday morning, Ancic was a little-known qualifier from Split, ranked 154th in the world. By nightfall, the youthful looking boy was being called "Super Mario."

Between morning and evening, Ancic sprang the biggest upset at Wimbledon thus far, dispatching seventh-seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland with poise and power, winning, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3. For Federer, this was his second straight first-round loss in a Grand Slam. He has turned a good year into a shaky one in less than a month.

"I'm terribly down right now," said Federer, who made his name by beating Pete Sampras here last year in the fourth round. "I expected much more than coming in here and losing in straight sets. For the moment, I haven't got any words."

Ancic didn't need words to describe his joy when Federer hit a forehand passing shot wide on Ancic's first match point. He pumped his fists, leaned back and unleashed a scream, then threw a tennis ball into the second level of seats on Centre Court.

He became the first teenager to make his Wimbledon debut a win on Centre Court since Bjorn Borg did it in 1973 at 17. This was only his second tour-level match of 2002.

"I feel great," Ancic said. "I just played one of the best matches in my life, so how can I feel? I cannot feel better, I think."

Said Federer, "I couldn't quite figure out his serve. I was struggling to read his toss. I still think conditions are much slower than last year. I maybe made one ace, I think. It's a joke, I think I made 25 against Pete last year.... I don't know what was wrong today."

The chief beneficiaries of Federer's exit would appear to be No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia and No. 4 Tim Henman of Britain, who are in his half of the draw. Hewitt faced a potentially difficult opening test against Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden, who'd won last week's pre-Wimbledon tournament at Nottingham, but won in convincing fashion, 6-4, 7-5, 6-1. Henman never faced deuce on his own serve, defeating French qualifier Jean-Francois Bachelot, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

There was one other significant upset. Brazilian Flavio Saretta took out Australian Open champion, No. 8 Thomas Johansson of Sweden, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 12-10, in 4 hours 21 minutes. It was Saretta's first tour-level grass-court victory.

Saretta and Ancic had performed well at Wimbledon as juniors. Saretta made the quarterfinals in 1998, and Ancic lost in the final in 2000 at 16.

By then, he was working with respected coach Bob Brett. Brett also coached Boris Becker and Ivanisevic, from 1991-95. Initially, Brett had to tame Ancic's Ivanisevic-type spirit.

"I think he calmed me a lot in four years," Ancic said. "In the beginning, I had to do push-ups for every [bad] word I [said] because he knew everything from Goran. I was unlucky there."

Brett advised him to view Centre Court before the match, which he did. Also, Ivanisevic had called the night before with some advice on how to play Federer. How about staying away from that forehand?

Ancic also had practiced with Jim Courier on grass.

"We hit for one hour," Ancic said. "He's still hitting good, I can tell you that."

That was set up by Brett, who has the larger picture in mind for his pupil.

"He also played with [Pat] Cash at Queen's," Brett said. "I think that it's important for young players to be able to establish some sort of relationship with older players. He played with [John] McEnroe a couple of years ago, at Paris, in the French. So that was good.... That's how history is passed on. That's how they have some sort of connection, building something for the future."

Though people are bound to make comparisons between Ancic and Ivanisevic--each is 6 feet 4, lanky, and possesses an understated sense of humor--the youngster was eager to establish that he is not a clone.

"Goran is Goran," he said. "Not me.... It was all the time since I grew up they were talking that I am second Goran. But Goran says the best sentence that describes everything: 'Next Goran will be [my] son.' I'm Mario."

Brett echoed these sentiments.

"Goran's a completely different athlete," he said. "Also, the speed of his arm, I thought, was completely different. The way Mario is prepared to attack much more than Goran did. Mario is more straightforward, straight ahead, 'Boom, I'm going to attack. This is where I'm going.' "

Ancic's composure was admirable in his first Centre Court performance. At 18, Ivanisevic probably would have broken out his three personalities to deal with the big-time occasion.

There is no good Mario, bad Mario or emergency Mario.

"I'm still one," Ancic said, laughing. "He's unique."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Wimbledon Glance

Attendance: 40,995 (last year 41,320).

Notable seeded men who won: No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 4 Tim Henman, No. 9 Juan Carlos Ferrero, No. 10 Guillermo Canas, No. 16 Nicolas Escude.

Notable seeded women who won: No. 1 Venus Williams, No. 4 Monica Seles, No. 5 Kim Clijsters, No. 6 Justine Henin, No. 10 Sylvia Farina Elia, No. 12 Elena Dementieva, No. 16 Lisa Raymond.

Seeded men who lost: No. 7 Roger Federer, No. 8 Thomas Johansson, No. 13 Younes El Aynaoui, No. 20 Tommy Robredo.

Seeded women who lost: No. 15 Anna Smashnova, No. 28 Paola Suarez.

Today's featured matches: Marta Marrero vs. Jennifer Capriati (3); Francesca Schiavone vs. Serena Williams (2); Paradorn Srichaphan vs. Andre Agassi (3); Pete Sampras (6) vs. George Bastl.

TV: 7 a.m., TNT

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