With 16 singles matches, terrific tennis on display

WIMBLEDON, England -- At the beginning of the long day's journey into night at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club on Monday, John Barrett, Britain's ever-cheerful and insightful man about tennis, said with irrepressible enthusiasm: "I love this day. The whole tournament sort of explodes. Sixteen singles matches. It's wonderful."

Barrett has been, at various times, Davis Cup player and captain, tennis honcho for equipment manufacturer Slazenger (longtime supplier of balls at Wimbledon), tennis correspondent for The Financial Times and founding editor of World of Tennis, for decades the sport's definitive annual. He is married to 1961 Wimbledon champion Angela Mortimer, still a BBC television commentator and a distinguished member of the All England Club who is asked to emcee special Centre Court ceremonies.

He was the logical choice to play himself as the voice of the BBC in last year's Kirsten Dunst film "Wimbledon." He is inclined more to understatement than hyperbole, so you know he is sincere in his passion for the second Monday of The Championships.

How can you not love a day on which Lindsay Davenport survives a gripping three-setter on Centre Court against Kim Clijsters to reach the quarterfinals?

There were some real dramas: Anastasia Myskina outlasting Elena Dementieva on Court 13; Nadia Petrova hanging on by her fingernails against Kveta Peschke on Court 18; Sebastien Grosjean engaging Dmitry Tursunov for five sets over 3½ hours on Court 2, keeping alive his bid for a third straight passage to the semifinals -- or beyond.

Taylor Dent wasn't quite fit or fast enough to make his Centre Court showdown with Lleyton Hewitt magical, like their classic five-setter in 2001, but Dent did escape a match point in the third set, won it in a tiebreak and kept Hewitt honest through the fourth.

Wimbledon is the only one of the Grand Slams to take a rest day on the middle Sunday, in large measure to give the grass courts a good soaking to sustain them for the second week in hot, mostly dry years like this. The celestial sprinklers so familiar to Wimbledon watchers have been off except for Friday night's thundershowers. Therefore the whole round of 16 in both the men's and women's singles is played on the second Monday.

The weather was heavenly -- a few degrees cooler than last week and less muggy, but with so much sun it brought out the freckles on the fair face of defending champion Maria Sharapova. It was, indeed, a wonderful day.

Even some matches that lacked suspense were interesting. Who would have imagined that one of the few matches this year with classic grass-court tactics -- both players serv ing and volleying and trying to get to the net as often as possible -- would be the first career meeting between a Spaniard (Feliciano Lopez) and a Croatian (Mario Ancic)?

Lopez, 23, is a handsome left-hander with flowing hair pulled back with a white bandanna. He plays divinely on turf. He has the looks and panache to become a star like his Spanish Davis Cup teammate and buddy, Rafael Nadal, the 18-year-old French Open champion who has made sleeveless T-shirts and tight white clamdiggers all the rage for tennis. Lopez all but undressed the 21-year-old Ancic, a semifinalist last year and the last man to beat two-time defending champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

Ancic looked out of sorts from the start, and Lopez kept him that way with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win. The Croatian was so frustrated, he hurled his racket on the grass violently, seemingly challenging to see if he could get a record-high bounce. He picked it up and then bounced it higher still. One time, he lost his white baseball-style cap serving one of his 15 double-faults. He tried wearing the cap both backward and forward, but nothing could change his fate. Lopez kept swooping in, volleying exquisitely, angling passing shots that also had Ancic snarling epithets in Serbo-Croatian. They probably didn't translate to: "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."

At the finish, Lopez ripped off his headband and tossed it gleefully into the crowd. Then he lobbed a bunch of tennis balls as souvenirs as well. He was beaming. He had been to the round of 16 twice before, and now he is in the quarters for the first time, his career Wimbledon record impressive at 12-3.

"He maybe was a little bit nervous, not serving as he's serving usually," Lopez said of Ancic. "From my part, I play a great match. I serve very good. I play my best strokes today from the baseline. I return good."

In the third round, Lopez beat No. 5 seed Marat Safin on Court 1 and wasn't sure where to exit. He turned the wrong way. "But now I know everything here," he said, smiling sweetly, exuding charm and charisma. Next he plays Hewitt on Wednesday and could give him trouble, although he was deferential to the Australian.

"He is one of the best players in the world -- even more on grass," Lopez said. "He won the tournament here."

That was 2002. Lopez debuted at Wimbledon that year and reached the fourth round. It was his first tournament ever on grass, and he fell in love with it.

"I think I have a good game for grass -- better than clay, better than any other surface," Lopez said.

He noted that newspapers in his country will be thrilled because he is the first Spanish man in 33 years to reach the quarters.

"So it's probably one thing that makes the people dream a little bit, no?" he said.

Getting to the quarterfinals allows eight men and eight women to dream a little bit. Federer has the grandest dreams -- a third straight title -- and he looks as if he should cruise past Fernando Gonzalez of Chile to a potentially demanding semifinal against Hewitt or Lopez. Andy Roddick, the No. 2 seed, won in straight sets and faces Grosjean next, never an easy task here. David Nalbandian, runner-up to Hewitt in 2002, and Thomas Johansson also won in straights and will make the bottom half of the men's draw very competitive.

The enduring images of Davenport's 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 victory over Clijsters were the tall American dictating with her serve and the pace of her groundstrokes and the quicksilver Belgian running down apparent winners, sliding to make breathtaking "gets" to get back in points that Davenport thought she had already ended with exclamation points.

Clijsters' mother was a top gymnast in Belgium and her father was once his country's soccer player of the year, and it has been said that Kim combines her mom's flexibility and her dad's legs. She plays a scrappy, attractive brand of tennis, but Davenport just hit too many big serves on big points and had too much weight of shot in general to let Clijsters get any sustained foothold in the match.

Davenport had a match point in the ninth game of the second set and chances to take a commanding lead in the tiebreak, so she wasn't happy when she hit a sloppy patch and let Clijsters force a third set. The audience was happy to see the match go on, though. It contained some scintillating shotmaking and scrambling. Davenport prevailed with the three P's on her serve -- pace, placement and percentage -- and the rest of her game flowed from that. In the end, she wore her opponent down.

Davenport openly hoped going the extra set on Monday doesn't cost her in Tuesday's match against U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. Davenport still looks like the class of the top half, though. Sharapova continued her glamorously confident run to the quarters without losing a set and should be both sharp and fresh for her Tuesday match against fellow Russian Nadia Petrova. The winner of that will face the survivor of Venus Williams vs. Mary Pierce -- two players who have won Grand Slam singles titles and dream of getting back on top after long sieges with injuries.

Clijsters had those reveries, too. But after fighting so gallantly against Davenport and getting back to 3-5 in the final set with her first service break since the second game, she double-faulted three times around a loose forehand error to lose her serve in the final game. And so it ended with a whimper, but it was a bang-up match on one of those incomparably wonderful Wimbledon days when there was so much good tennis to savor in the sport's most beautiful setting.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.