Wimbledon prepares for week two

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England - Alexander Popp grew up in Germany idolizing Boris Becker, and yet when he won his first three matches at Wimbledon, the London media tried to claim him as their own.

That's partly because Popp's mother was born in England, and partly because no Englishman has won Wimbledon since 1936.

''Well, it's up to you,'' Popp said. ''But obviously I've been playing for Germany the last 26 years, and it doesn't look like it's going to change. … A part of me is English, that's for sure. But I grew up in Germany.''

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So Britain is left with just one hope: Tim Henman. Again.

The island nation's concern about the shoulder injury he has been nursing this year was alleviated when he lost just one set in three matches last week.

''There was perhaps a little more uncertainty than in previous years, for obvious reasons,'' the 10th-seeded Henman said. ''But at this stage, I couldn't be happier with the way I played in the past two matches.''

Henman beat 18-year-old Swedish qualifier Robin Soderling 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the third round Saturday.

Henman has reached the semifinals four of the past five years, losing each time to the eventual champion. London tabloids poke fun at his failures, but a triumph in the final Sunday would make him a candidate for knighthood.

He might even surpass English soccer icon David Beckham in popularity.

''I've had big buildups in previous years,'' Henman said. ''I'm trying to stay away from that personally, because I think you can start getting a little bit ahead of yourself. I realize I've got a lot of work ahead of me. There are a lot of battles to be played - and hopefully won.''

But London oddsmakers are betting on an all-American final between 33-year-old Andre Agassi and 20-year-old Andy Roddick.

Both looked impressive in the opening week. Agassi won two tiebreakers Saturday to edge athletic Younes El Aynaoui, and Roddick beat big-serving Greg Rusedski and crafty Tommy Robredo.

While Roddick is seeking his first Grand Slam title, Agassi won his first major championship and lone Wimbledon title way back in 1992.

Another triumph at the All England Club 11 years later would be unprecedented. The longest gap between Wimbledon titles for a man is nine years - by Bill Tilden, who won in 1920, 1921 and 1930.

Agassi, who appreciates such history, paid a visit to the club a couple of weeks before the tournament.

''Just an opportunity to come here and enjoy my membership that I don't get to enjoy from the other side of the world,'' Agassi said. ''Being a member of this club makes you consider moving, it's so special. So when I'm here, I do enjoy the opportunity to take advantage of it, practicing here, having a cup of tea.''

Singles champions become honorary members. Among the women still in contention to join are Jennifer Capriati, French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne and five Russians, a record number from that country in the final 16 of a Grand Slam event.

But the final may well feature two women who are already members - Serena and Venus Williams. They've combined to win the past three Wimbledon finals, they've played in four of the past five Grand Slam finals, and they began the week on course for another sibling showdown Saturday.

''This is when it gets really serious,'' said Serena, who has won 20 consecutive sets at Wimbledon. ''I'm not just glad to get through. I like to be proud of my results and proud of the way I play and proud that my game is going up as each match and each day progress.

''I'm just going to keep fighting.''