Tennis: Rios raises his game to check Henman charge

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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN'S splendid run of form at the Lipton Championships was curtailed in the semi-finals yesterday when his duel of contrasting styles with Marcelo Rios was won emphatically by the Chilean baseliner, 6-2, 4-6, 6-0.

Neither player had dropped a set in the previous rounds, but the British No 2 realised that he would have to serve well to discourage his opponent, and he was let down in this department. In the deciding whitewash, which was over in 20 minutes, Henman won only one point in his three service games. At the end of the match, the British No 2 vented his frustration by stamping on a spare racket next to his chair.

Rios's victory earns him an opportunity to supplant Pete Sampras as as the world No 1, making him only the 14th man to rise to the top since the ATP rankings began in 1973, and the first from Latin America. To accomplish this, Rios must win the final tomorrow against either Andre Agassi or Alex Corretja, who were due to play their semi-final last night.

Having frozen against Petr Korda in his first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in January, Rios is not in the mood to disappoint his supporters a second time. Throughout the tournament he has performed with the tenacity that unhinged Greg Rusedski, the British No 1, in the final at Indian Wells, California, two weeks ago.

Yesterday's contest lasted one hour and 35 minutes, and the opening game gave a clear indication of the pattern of the match. Henman won the first three points behind emphatic first serves, then crumbled after offering his opponent opportunities to counter-attack. A double-fault on Henman's second game point emboldened Rios, who broke on the third break point.

Henman created two chances to break back in the sixth game, netting a backhand approach on the first and hitting a backhand return long from a steady first serve on the second.

After losing the opening set in 33 minutes, Henman looked sharper in the second set, holding serve in the opening game and breaking Rios by returning a second serve. Rios retaliated immediately, unnerving the Briton with a brilliant forehand return for 30-40 and converting with a trademark two-handed backhand cross-court pass.

Henman double-faulted twice in the seventh game to offer Rios a break point, saving the situation with a forehand volley, one of the rare occasions when his forehand worked for him rather than against.

Confidence returned to Henman's play when he began to outshine Rios in some spectacular rallies, particularly at the net, a backhand block volley on break point at 4-3 opening the way for him to level the match. Rios lost his temper and hurled his racket to the side of the court.

Although Henman was broken when serving for the set at 5-3, he attacked Rios's serve to such good purpose in the 10th game that the Chilean won only one point. Henman's angled backhand volley for 0-40 was one of the shots of the match. It was also his last show of dominance.

"I didn't serve particularly well today," Henman acknowledged. "I struggled with my first serve, but that was because of the way he was returning." While disappointed with the outcome, he took encouragement from his previous performances against Korda, Carlos Moya and Gustavo Kuerten. "I've really got the year going now," he said, "and I want to maintain that."