Tim Henman, the last best hope of British men's tennis, overwhelmed No. 3 seed Petr Korda, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, yesterday to storm into the Wimbledon men's semifinals.
Henman's triumph came less than 24 hours after the English soccer team was sent packing from the World Cup by Argentina on penalty kicks, in one of those glorious exits that English teams -- and players -- are famous for.
The doe-eyed, hard-hitting Henman is out to change the sporting stereotype of the lovable English loser.
"I didn't want to continue that trend, so I was keen to win," Henman said when asked if he was out to put a smile back on the face of the nation.
But Henman, Britain's first men's semifinalist since Roger Taylor in 1973, now faces the toughest task of his career. Waiting for the No. 12 seed in tomorrow's semifinal is No. 1 seed and four-time champion Pete Sampras, who defeated Mark Philippoussis, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4.
The other semifinal will match serving specialists Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic.
Krajicek, the ninth seed and 1996 Wimbledon champion, routed Davide Sanguinetti, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. No. 14 seed Ivanisevic, a two-time losing finalist, defeated Jan Siemerink, 7-6 (12-10), 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6).
But at Wimbledon, all eyes will be on Henman, bidding to become the first British men's champion since Fred Perry in 1936.
Henman's grandfather, Henry Billington, was a regular competitor at Wimbledon. And Henman's parents are members of the All England Club.
A few years ago, Henman was embarrassed at Wimbledon, when he smacked a ball in anger and hit a ball girl. He offered an apology, gave the ball girl a bouquet of flowers and endured a series of interviews with Britain's tabloid newspapers.
Now, he's beloved in Britain. And he is trying to face the mounting pressure and buildup of a country in search of a sporting hero who actually wins.
"I'm out there playing for myself, and that's the way it will always be," he said.
Unfortunately for Henman, he now meets Sampras.
There was a lot of talk before this tournament that the Sampras era was near its close. Now, he's on a roll.
"I have no complaints the way I'm playing," Sampras said.
And he's looking forward to facing Henman and the crowd tomorrow. In 1995, he had a similar match, meeting Greg Rusedski, the Canadian transplant who had just picked up a British passport. Sampras won easily.
"I think the toughest crowd I've ever played in front of was probably against Boris Becker in Germany," Sampras said.
Sampras said the key to playing in front of a vociferous crowd is to grab an early lead.
"It's still one-on-one," he said. "So I think Tim knows that. It's just going to be us two playing. He's going to have some emotional support behind him, but you have to play. And I feel like I'm playing well."
The other semifinal will also pit players reaching a peak.
There's no surprise that Krajicek and Ivanisevic dominated the bottom half of the men's draw. They're among the bigger servers in the game, and if they're hot, they're virtually unstoppable.
Krajicek's right knee, which was surgically repaired in December 1996, has been hurting. But he just keeps winning.
"I don't think I'm a Marine or a Navy Seal, but I think I can cope with the pain OK," he said.
But Krajicek still has to get past Ivanisevic. If Henman can't win Wimbledon, many here would like to see Ivanisevic finally grab the title. The Croat is on a comeback, serving hard and winning easily.
What would happen if Croatia won the World Cup and Ivanisevic won Wimbledon?
"I think the whole country will be drunk for the rest of the year, including me and the rest of the team," Ivanisevic said. "We celebrate. I put the rackets in the closet and just come next year."
Today's women's matches
Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, vs. Jana Novotna (3), Czech Republic
Natasha Zvereva, Belarus, vs. Nathalie Tauziat (16), France
Tomorrow's men's matches
Pete Sampras (1), U.S., vs. Tim Henman (12), Britain
Richard Krajicek (9), Netherlands, vs. Goran Ivanisevic (14), Croatia
Pub Date: 7/02/98