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Giantkiller Stakhovsky slays No.12 seed Ernests Gulbis

Sergiy Stakhovsky extends for a backhand on Court 12
by Matt Trollope
Wednesday 25 June 2014

Sergiy Stakhovsky possesses a deep admiration for Pat Rafter.

During an interview at the Sydney International in January, Stakhovsky said that of any player from another era, he would most like to face the net-rushing former world No.1.

“And I wouldn’t play him – I would just sit on the sidelines and watch,” he laughed. He got his chance just two weeks later; the Ukrainian was spotted running for a seat on Hisense Arena during the Australian Open when Rafter made a brief comeback partnering Lleyton Hewitt in doubles.

Stakhovsky was just 15 when Rafter made his second of two swashbuckling runs to the final at the All England Club, in 2000 and 2001. And 13 years on, in an era of predominantly back-court tennis, Stakhovsky emulated his hero with a serve-and-volley attack to dismiss No.12 seed Ernests Gulbis in straight sets on Wednesday.

Despite his ranking of No.90, the Ukrainian was hardly an unknown quantity at this year’s Championships. In 2013, he caused the shock of the fortnight when, as the world No.116, he ousted the great Roger Federer in the second round, the Swiss player’s earliest exit at Wimbledon in 11 years. In 2014, he was facing slightly less illustrious opposition but it was still a man who was a recent Roland Garros semi-finalist and the newest member of the world’s top 10.

This result – a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(5) triumph – boiled down to one factor: Stakhovsky’s game is simply much better suited to grass than his opponent’s. “The surface is fast. It's no bounce. It's speedy. It's exactly what I need. So pretty much I have the chance of finishing that volley if I have it,” he noted.

His powerful serve, compact strokes, sliced backhand and attacking mentality were all immediately effective on the lawns of Court 12. Gulbis, he of the heavy top-spun ground strokes and long backswings, could barely clear the net in the first two games with his especially loopy forehand.

The Latvian handed Stakhovsky an early break and it was all the Ukrainian needed; such was the strength of Stakhovsky’s delivery that he won 100 per cent of his first-serve points in the first set.

The second set hinged on the seventh game. Gulbis continually erred to give Stakhovsky break points, only to produce magnificent winners to save them.

“What is wrong with the serve?” the Latvian screamed at himself when he lost another point at deuce – curiously, with a forehand error – before promptly saving that fourth break point with an ace.

Yet a seventh proved one too many. And with the break in hand, Stakhovsky barely lost another point. After he held for a 5-3 lead, Gulbis dished up two consecutive double faults to surrender serve to love.

And so onto the third, a routine affair of dutiful service holds that progressed to a tie-break. Here Stakovsky’s grass-court prowess again came to the fore; with the mini-break in hand courtesy of two Gulbis errors, Stakhovsky belted a service winner and then won a point with athletic volleys and overheads to open a 4-1 lead

Two match points came and went, before another successful serve-and-volley venture – Stakhovsky won almost three-quarters of his 45 points at net – sealed victory.

The lawns may have slowed considerably in the past decade or so since Rafter’s last appearance in the final, yet Stakhovsky proved that if you can execute a net-rushing game plan, it’s still a most effective tactic at the All England Club.

Into the third round for the second successive year, Stakhovsky said he would learn from the mistake he made of conducting “355 press conferences” after upsetting Federer, something that left him emotionally drained for his match against Jurgen Melzer, which he lost in four. “Today this is the only press I'm doing,” he revealed.

“Hopefully I'll do everything in my powers to play better next round. I believe I'm smarter. I learned from my mistakes from last year, what I did wrong, and hopefully will be better.”

Jeremy Chardy awaits.

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