Henman finally arrives

Australian Open: Two young national heroes thrive in the limelight as they head for a first-round showdown; Chris Bowers watches the British No 1 cruise to his first ATP Tour title
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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN crowned a remarkable opening fortnight of the year by winning the first ATP Tour title of his career yesterday. The 22-year- old from Oxford, who even before the final of the Sydney International was guaranteed a place in the world's top 20 in this week's rankings, took just 54 minutes to outclass Carlos Moya of Spain 6-3 6-1.

Both the final and the title represent triumphs for Henman and his entourage on several fronts. In the first two weeks of the new tennis year he has won nine matches out of ten without really hitting some of the heights of form he showed last year.

That he has secured the wins speaks volumes for his mental toughness, ability to play the big points, and growing tactical acumen which allows him to eke out victories in matches which are drifting away from him. Three consecutive times this week he had to come back from losing the first set to beat Sergi Bruguera, Alex O'Brien and the world No 3 Goran Ivanisevic, and against Bruguera he was fighting off the effects of jetlag.

This is the real sea change - some might call it culture shock - Henman is bringing to the image of British tennis. Over the past 20-odd years, there has been no lack of British tennis talent, but at 3-3 in the final set players have tended to let themselves down rather than move in for the kill. Henman appears to have an inner supreme confidence in such situations which allows him to win matches against more illustrious opponents, even when not playing his best.

His Sydney title is also a triumph for his coach David Felgate. A player of limited achievements, Felgate joined the ranks of the British players who never made it on court but who try to make it as coaches. In the four and a half years he has worked with Henman, he has been a calm guiding influence who has kept the player relaxed but focused, and who has also had the tennis brain to improve Henman's game.

Most significantly, he has worked on Henman's forehand and serve. Henman was always a promising junior, but for a while it seemed the young Tim's potential might prove limited in the absence of a big weapon. These days his serve is big, regularly touching 125mph, and while his forehand is still more erratic than it should be, he makes numerous winners out of seemingly innocuous situations.

After beating Henman in the semi-finals of last month's Grand Slam Cup, Boris Becker suggested the Brit should come to the net earlier in points. "It's something David and I had already discussed," said Henman in Sydney last week. "I know I have to make more of my volleys, but I'm working at it, and you'll see me coming more to the net after my serve than I have in the past."

That was certainly the feature which turned round his match against Bruguera on Wednesday and which frustrated O'Brien, Ivanisevic and Moya. Even if not all of Henman's approach shots are as crisp as they might be, his presence at the net challenges opponents to pass him, and when they start missing, their frustration grows. It was all too much for Ivanisevic, who smashed his racquet into two pieces as Henman dismantled him 4-6 7- 6 6-1.

Against Moya, Henman started nervously. He was lucky not to lose his serve in the opening game, and then was broken in the third as the 20- year-old Spaniard scored freely off his powerful forehand. But almost with a sense of "that wasn't meant to happen", Henman stormed back, taking Moya's next two service games and allowing him only two more service holds for the rest of the match.

Once Henman had taken the opening set in 33 minutes, he opened up in the second, and with a combination of fluent movement, some great angles, and outstanding tactical awareness, he wrapped up the victory six minutes short of the hour.

When the new ranking list is published tomorrow Henman will become only the fourth Briton in the 23-year history of the men's rankings to appear in the top 20. He will overtake John Lloyd's highest ever position of 21 from 1978 and probably Buster Mottram's career-high 15 from 1983. Mark Cox reached 14 in 1976 (Henman's expected position, though the complexities of the ranking system make this only an estimate), and a good run at the Australian Open should see him close to overhauling Roger Taylor's highest ever British men's singles ranking of 11 from 1973.

Yet his first title is hardly likely to go to his head. Asked what it meant to him, he said with characteristic understatement: "It's obviously very satisfying. It hasn't been the most straightforward of weeks, what with the weather and arriving so late [from Qatar] but I can look back on it with a great deal of satisfaction."

The British No 1 will not have it easy at Flinders Park. In the first round he comes up against the great hope of Australian tennis, the local hero Mark Philippoussis.

Following defeats yesterday in the qualifying events for Mark Petchey, Andrew Richardson and Samantha Smith, Henman and Greg Rusedski are left to represent Britain in the singles. Rusedski opens against his fellow left-hander Felix Mantilla, the No 14 seed from Spain.

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