Henman poised to carry off his own Brit award

John Roberts reports from Key Biscayne on tennis's answer to the Oscars
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The Independent Online
When tennis's answer to the Oscars takes place tonight at the Jackie Gleason Theatre, Miami Beach, Tim Henman's nomination will provide further evidence that there is colour in the cheeks of the English patient.

Whether or not the 22-year-old from Oxford outscores his rivals for the ATP Tour's Most Improved Player of the Year Award for 1996, Felix Mantilla, of Spain, and the American Alex O'Brien, the Lawn Tennis Association can take encouragement.

The ceremonies are being held on the eve of the Lipton Championships across the bay at Key Biscayne. Not long ago it would have been a treat to see the name of a British player in a main draw, never mind seeded and shortlisted to be honoured by his peers.

It is the first occasion that the men's ATP Tour and the women's WTA Tour have held a joint awards gala, and it will make a pleasant change to hear praise for a British competitor prior to the traditional opening of an envelope.

Winners of the ATP Tour's Most Improved Player Award tend to do rather well. Their number includes John McEnroe (1978), Ivan Lendl (1981), Boris Becker (1985), Andre Agassi (1988), Michael Chang (1989) and Pete Sampras (1990).

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the recipient for 1994, went on to become the first Russian to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open last June. Thomas Enqvist, winner of the award for 1995, performed heroically for Sweden even though his country were defeated by France, 3-2, in a breathtakingly exciting Davis Cup final last December.

However, any urge to scream "the British are coming!" should be suppressed. It might be premature and potentially embarrassing, especially with so many Waterford Crystal trophies on display.

Pete Sampras, for example, will be presented with a fourth consecutive ATP Tour Player of the Year Award as the world No 1 and will also receive an ATP Tour Milestone Award to mark his 40th title (he is now only three short of the 50th).

Henman has continued to build on the progress he made last year, the highlight of which was an appearance in the Wimbledon quarter-finals. So far in 1997, the 22-year-old from Oxford has won his first ATP Tour singles title, in Sydney, finished runner-up in two others, in Doha and Antwerp, and has achieved his highest world ranking, No 14 (he is currently No 16).

"When I played Henman a couple of years ago at Wimbledon," Sampras recalled, "I thought he had a very solid game. He just needed to fill out a little bit physically and get a little stronger. He's obviously done that. He's serving a lot harder.

"He's got a game that reminds me a lot of Edberg - real nice backhand, moves very well, has a good head on his shoulders. The way he's playing, it seems like he's going to be around for a lot of years."

Greg Rusedski, inspired - or spurred - by Henman's success, raised his game and advanced to successive finals, losing controversially to Goran Ivanisevic in Zagreb and retiring hurt in San Jose after winning the opening set against Sampras, having defeated Chang and Andre Agassi back-to-back.

"Greg's game has been steadily improving," Chang said. "He relies so much on his serve. I think that on particular days, when he's serving extremely well, he's going to be very, very dangerous, particularly against top players, and on days when he doesn't serve very well he's going to struggle a little bit. So that's really the backbone of his game."

The combination of a wrist injury and a virus infection subsequently put Rusedski on the sidelines, but he returned to action indoors in Europe this week, competing at St Petersburg, but yesterday was forced to pull out of the event after aggravating his wrist and may be doubtful for Britain's Davis Cup match against Zimbabwe at Crystal Palace next month. He is currently ranked No 37. A swollen right elbow caused Henman to miss last week's tournament at Indian Wells, California, but he is back for the Lipton.

"Tennis in England, I think, is going to be very bright," Sampras said, adding a proviso. "There's a lot of things that those two guys, especially Henman, has to deal with, and that's the media, the expectations. Now he's coming up, he's going out with nothing to lose. There's going to come a time when people are going to expect him to win.''

Steffi Graf's three Grand Slam titles (the French, Wimbledon and United States championships) virtually guarantee her an eighth WTA Tour Player of the Year Award.

The only other nomination in this category is Martina Hingis, the Swiss 16-year-old who will become the youngest-ever world No 1 when she overtakes the injured Graf on 31 March. Hingis is one of three finalists for two other awards, Most Improved Player of the Year and Doubles Team of the Year (with Helena Sukova).