Tennis: Kafelnikov wins the psychological battle with Henman

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The Independent Online
WITH the wind flapping the plastic roofing and the stanchion joints creaking, it was difficult to be sure whether we were watching a tennis tournament or about to go ballooning with Richard Branson.

On the Centre Court of the temporary arena in Battersea Park, Tim Henman was running short of helium. It would be unfair to suggest that the British No 2 blew his chance of advancing to today's semi-finals of the inaugural Guardian Direct Cup, although that was the view expressed by his Russian opponent, Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

"Tim should have won, 6-4, 6-4," the third-seeded Kafelnikov said, having triumphed in their quarter-final, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. The 24-year-old knows all about turning points when Henman is on the other side of the net. At Wimbledon two years ago, Henman saved two match points against Kafelnikov, before winning their first round match in five sets.

Yesterday, with Henman serving powerfully and almost flawlessly on a fast carpet court, Kafelnikov thought the match was up when the Briton created two break points at 4-4 in the second set. The first opportunity was lost when Henman lofted a backhand over the baseline. Kafelnikov emphatically saved the second with forehand down the line to the corner of the court.

Serving to save the set in the next game, Henman double-faulted to 15- 40, and then struck a backhand half-volley long after Kafelnikov returned his next serve. "I was lucky to break at the end of the second set," the Russian said. "He thought he had the match won already. After that I had the edge over him psychologically.''

That belief sustained Kafelnikov during the fifth game of the final set. Leading 3-1, he survived three break points from 0-40, holding for 4-1 after Henman saw another backhand go long.

Kafelnikov sympathised with Henman, who has raised his game this week to end a run of five defeats. "When his first serve goes in, basically I'm not going to break him, the Russian said. ``On the baseline I'm a better player than him, and Tim knows that as well. That's why when he misses his first serve he is under pressure. He's a natural. His main problem is psychological.''

Henman, while agreeing that he should have won with one of his chances at 4-4 in the second set, took a positive stance on his week's progress.

With Henman gone, a sense of anticlimax threatens to pervade the tournament over the concluding two days. Many people might consider that the new ATP Tour event has been low key all week, the notion of tennis in the park in February with Henman and Greg Rusedski failing to pack the stadium.

The chief mistake was to schedule Henman's match against Krajicek so late on Tuesday that it did not finish until past midnight, by which time most spectators had gone home.

Impetus was lost, in addition to which television coverage on the opening days was sporadic. None the less, the organisers are encouraged by the overall response and are determined to make improvements over the next two years.