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Minsk mystery man advances

Posted: Thursday, July 06, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- Ladies and gentlemen, the Wimbledon men's semifinalists: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter and -- Vladimir Voltchkov?

Yes, Vladimir Voltchkov, a guy wearing borrowed shorts and donated shoes, will play Sampras, the six-time champion, for more money than the mystery man from Minsk has earned in five years as a pro.

Voltchkov linked his name Wednesday with John McEnroe as the only men ever to rise from the dust of qualifying to the semifinals of Wimbledon as he beat Bryon Black 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 6-4. Ranked 237, Voltchkov is the lowest-ranked player in history to reach the Wimbledon semis.

''I came here to play qualies, was hoping to win a few matches, to make some money to travel,'' said the 22-year-old Voltchkov, who is bunking in a flat with four others, including his father, the cook of the household. ''Now I'm here in the semifinals. I cannot wish for more than that.''

He might want to wish for a clothing contract. He's wearing an old white shirt saved from last year, shorts handed down from his Russian buddy Marat Safin, and shoes given to him as a gift in the past week from two company reps.

Sampras said he would be happy to donate something to Voltchkov.

''I'll give him some hardcourt shoes,'' Sampras joked. ''I won't give him any grasscourt shoes.''

Sampras has never seen Voltchkov play, and neither have many other people. He's been scuffling around the lower-tier Challenger events, trying to work his way up the rankings on a low budget.

''I had a difficult financial situation before coming here,'' said Voltchkov, who learned to play tennis on a synthetic grass court outside the car factory in Minsk, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, where his father worked. ''I couldn't really afford (to stay). If I lost in the first or second round, I probably would go back home, practice on synthetic grass, then come back for Bristol.''

Voltchkov's earnings through the end of last year totaled $174,733. By reaching the semis here, he's guaranteed $180,000. He would double that in the improbable event he beats Sampras, and walk away with a cool $720,000 if he should somehow win the tournament.

The Wimbledon junior champion in 1996, Voltchkov is a baseliner who likes hitting low balls off the grass but isn't quite sure what he can do against Sampras.

''We're talking about probably the great player of all times here,'' Voltchkov said. ''It's difficult to find any weaknesses. Pete is the kind of player who, if he's in a good mood, can play unbelievable in any part of the game.''

Sampras was in a rather grumpy mood Wednesday with his left leg still sore and no practice again between matches, but that didn't stop him from serving 26 aces in a 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 victory over Jan-Michael Gambill.

Sampras, who hasn't yet faced a seeded player, praised the 23-year-old Gambill as ''the future of American tennis ... a standout with a lot of potential.''

Yet even on a day when Sampras appeared sluggish, Gambill couldn't break him. And despite 23 aces of his own, Gambill yielded at critical moments. Sampras, who complained more frequently than usual about linesmen's calls, wore the look of a worried man who knew he was fortunate to escape trouble.

''It's definitely been a tough week,'' he said. ''You go through an emotional roller coaster with your good days and your bad days. It's not an ideal situation for me.''

Sampras said his coach, Paul Annacone, has been urging him to get his energy up on the court, to have some fun, be positive, not get down on himself, and just play the best he can despite the acute tendinitis above his ankle.

''If I don't win here, it's OK,'' said Sampras, sounding more downbeat than he has all week. ''I'm still here, and I'm positive for Friday. ... I have nothing to prove here at Wimbledon. I'd love to add on to what I have. I feel like I can. If not this year, maybe next year. Maybe I'll take a wildcard till I'm 40.''

Agassi and Rafter have shown the best form so far, and they will meet in the other semifinal. Agassi beat Rafter's Australian compatriot, Mark Philippoussis, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4 in their quarterfinal duel, and Rafter downed Alexander Popp 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1).

Agassi faced thunderous serves by Philippoussis, and watched 22 aces zip by, but never buckled. Agassi's own serve hasn't been broken in three matches, and this time Philippoussis struck out on the five break points he saw.

With both players holding through the first set, and Agassi leading 4-3 on serve in the tiebreaker, the beginning of the end of Philippoussis came on his fastest serve of the match -- a 135 mph rocket to Agassi's forehand. But Agassi pelted it back almost as hard, and Philippoussis slapped a half-volley wide.

It was a demoralizing moment for the Australian, and another one followed. Agassi ripped a backhand return that Philippoussis volleyed into the net to fall behind 6-3. Two points later, Agassi served his first ace of the match, a mere 106 mph shot with a devilish angle, and he was on his way to victory.

''Oh, he has a fantastic serve,'' Agassi said. ''It's certainly one of the best in the game. But to me, I feel like you've got to make a distinction in this sport between a great serve and a great hold game. The difference is how you follow it up. If you're not quick enough to net behind a 135 mph serve, and if it does come back, it can present some problems.

''I don't get distracted by people acing me. I try to just make sure I do well with the opportunities I will get, knowing that they're eventually going to come.''

Agassi beat Rafter, a classic serve-and-volleyer, in their semifinals at Wimbledon a year ago. This time Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion, hopes he can turn the tables.

''You hope Andre has one of his bad days,'' Rafter said. ''He's playing good tennis to beat Mark. ... I'm going to have to step that notch up again. There's no weakness in Andre at all.''



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