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Several strangers lead Wimbledon into the unknown


WIMBLEDON, England - Who are these guys?

What are Brazil's Andre Sa, Argentina's David Nalbandian, Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti and the Netherlands' Sjeng Schalken doing in Wimbledon's quarterfinals?

Why is Britain's Tim Henman still torturing his country with marathon matches at dinnertime?

And will somebody please explain how a not-so-explosive baseliner, No. 1 seed Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, looms as the man most likely to win Wimbledon?

Quick, Wimbledon needs answers, because this men's tournament is either the best thing in years to happen to the sport or a harbinger of a bleak future.

Yesterday, winning ugly and rain seemed to break out all over the All England Club as the tournament resumed after a dry, upset-filled opening week.

No. 4 Henman needed smelling salts to deal with an upset stomach, rain and the play of Switzerland's Michel Kratochvil before winning, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Clay-courters also transformed themselves into grass-court maestros, something that isn't supposed to happen at a serve-and-volley show.

Sa, who comes from a country with three grass courts and five World Cups, beat Feliciano Lopez of Spain, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, to gain a quarterfinal against Henman, Wimbledon's favorite son.

At least one South American will make the semifinals after Nalbandian and Lapentti advanced to a quarterfinal meeting. Nalbandian dismantled Australia's big-serving Wayne Arthurs, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (7), and Lapentti defeated France's Arnaud Clement, 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Lapentti said tennis was about "a lot of surprises."

"If you see the draw, I'm sure nobody expected those names in the quarters or in the last 16," he said. "It's very competitive. You just have to be ready and take those little chances."

A little order was restored by Hewitt's wipeout of Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5. Hewitt will next face Schalken, who defeated Jan Vacek of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5.

Britain's Greg Rusedski and Belgium's Xavier Malisse were tied at two sets all when their match was stopped at darkness. It will be resumed today.

Tennis may be entering a strange phase. The sport has a No. 1-ranked men's player, Hewitt, but does it have a dominant player?

"Not yet," Schalken said. "Lleyton might - maybe he can get to that point, but he won't hit anybody off the court like [Andre] Agassi and [Pete] Sampras used to."

Let's face it: The first-week upsets were nice, but the sport really does miss Agassi and Sampras.

Wimbledon will cope with what's left in a weakened field.

And some of the performers are pretty interesting.

There's Henman, who is trying to shed his bit-of-a-wimp image and become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 66 years. If he wins it now, he could point to yesterday's four-hour-plus match, when he was out on his feet after a 1-hour, 50-minute rain delay. At one stage, he lost seven of eight games to Kratochvil to give away the third set and go down a break in the fourth and fifth sets, but he rallied for the win. Kratochvil helped with 17 double faults.

"Just fight, it was as simple as that," Henman said.

Sa trained in Florida as a teen and played shooting guard for his high school basketball team. But he is Brazilian at heart, taking confidence from newspaper photos that showed the country's great soccer star, Ronaldo, grasping the World Cup.

"I thought it could be me," he said.

Hewitt may not be the most likeable character in the game. In fact, last week an opponent was asked if Hewitt was the guy most likely to be beaten up in the locker room. But the fans seem to enjoy his fighting style and his constant fist-pumping, not to mention his earnestness as he advanced to his first Wimbledon quarterfinal.

"I think if you return well and you stay aggressive from the back of the court and you pass well, then I don't think there's any reason why baseliners shouldn't do that well," Hewitt said.

But modern-day Wimbledon isn't supposed to be kind to baseliners not named Agassi or Jimmy Connors.

Yet anything is possible at this year's Wimbledon, where the only thing certain is that a champion will be crowned.

Who are these guys?

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