- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — They last met in distress, on the balcony of a hotel in Rome during the Italian Open. Around them, smoke: the building was on fire, a blaze that would kill three people.

Sjeng Schalken looked down from the seventh floor. Andy Roddick looked up from the sixth. Roddick held out his arms, bracing. Schalken jumped. The two made their way to a ledge, then a ladder, clambering down to a fire truck and away from the flames.

Tennis never seemed less important.

“It’s weird how things work,” said Roddick, who helped about a dozen people escape from the fatal conflagration. “Obviously, Sjeng and I knew we’d play each other again.”

And so they did. Nearly two months later, Roddick and Schalken reunited under far better circumstances yesterday, with Roddick notching a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (9), 6-3 victory in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

“We’ll always have that experience,” Roddick said of the hotel fire. “But we were both out there to win a tennis match. We’re friends, but once you get inside the lines, you’ve got to try to take care of business as much as possible.”

Roddick, the No.2 seed, advanced to his second consecutive semifinal. He next faces Croatia’s hard-serving Mario Ancic, who dumped England’s Tim Henman 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2, dashing the dreams of the empire for yet another year.

In the bottom half of the draw, Switzerland’s Roger Federer held off Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt, 6-1, 6-7 (1), 6-0, 6-4 in a meeting of the previous two Wimbledon champions.

Top-seeded Federer takes on France’s Sebastien Grosjean, a straight-set winner over Germany’s Florian Mayer.

After two days of dry weather, intermittent afternoon showers turned the men’s quarters into patchwork, slip-sliding affairs. Down 0-2 in the first set tiebreaker of his match against the Netherlands’ Schalken, Roddick stumbled on a patch of wet turf and fell face first.

Schalken failed to take advantage, however, tapping a backhand into the tape. Roddick rallied, and in both tiebreakers his heavy serve proved decisive.

While Roddick was able to set up points with first and second serves that routinely topped 120mph, Schalken’s awkward, animatronic service motion undermined his solid baseline play.

“He can hit a 125mph serve like I hit a 90mph one,” Schalken lamented. “It’s a little dis-balance in the whole match because I have to play every point from the baseline because I don’t have a big serve and he has a huge serve. But that’s his talent. I have a lot of respect for how he can do that.”

Roddick held his own on the ground, too, even mixing in some serve-and-volley play. Still, his grass court game remains a work in progress: On match point, he mistimed an overhead smash, nearly landing before hitting the ball.

Schalken said Roddick had improved since last year’s tournament, when Federer undressed him in the semifinals.

“I don’t see a big weakness in his game,” Schalken said. “That’s why he’s No.2 in the world. When he used to play, he wanted to go for it a little bit more. Now he’s just going for it in the service game with his serve, and the rest of his game is very solid.”

Roddick will need to be solid against Ancic, a 20-year-old Croatian nicknamed “little Goran” — a reference to countryman and former champ Goran Ivanisevic, who defeated Henman en route to the 2001 Wimbledon title.

Like Ivanisevic, Ancic’s booming serve makes him particularly dangerous on turf. A first-time Grand Slam semifinalist who finished last season ranked No.72 in the world, he pushed Roddick to three sets in a recent grass court tournament and is the last man to defeat Federer on the surface, scoring a first-round Wimbledon upset in 2001.

Though Henman managed to blunt hulking Australian ball thumper Mark Philippoussis in the fourth round, he was largely helpless against the 6-foot-5 Ancic, who finished with 11 aces.

“He’s serving bigger than Philippoussis; his second serve was more accurate, faster, coming down from a greater height,” Henman said. “I felt like he returned a lot better. You know, that was the difference.”

Ivanisevic and Ancic actually share a long history, first hitting together when Ancic was 10. Two years later, Ancic’s older brother, Ivica, was a Davis Cup teammate of Ivanisevic, who invited Ancic to be a ballboy in a match against Australia in Split, Croatia.

“When I was small, 15, 14, I was more playing from the baseline,” Ancic recalled. “[Ivanisevic] was saying [to] keep improving that volley game, keep going to the net. He also said, ‘You know, keep on breaking rackets,’ things like that.”

For Henman, who advanced to the Wimbledon quarters for the eighth time, the loss was another disappointing chapter in his increasingly quixotic quest to become the tournament’s first British male champion since Fred Perry in 1936.

“My hopes and desires and aims were to win this tournament,” he said. “And having lost it, it’s a tough one to swallow.”

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