Henman ushers in new era

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TIM HENMAN said he wanted to beat Jeremy Bates before Bates retired, and yesterday the 21-year-old from Oxford made sure he left an indelible mark on the former British No1.

Playing what he described as the best tennis of his life, Henman made up for losing to Bates in both their previous matches by simply blowing him off the court, taking 47 minutes to win 6-2 6-1 and reach today's final of the Guardian Direct National Championships. His opponent will be Greg Rusedski, who beat Mark Petchey 6-4 6-4 in the other semi-final. Whoever wins, a new name will be added to the list of domestic title-holders.

Henman and Bates have been practice partners for the past two years, but what was once, informally at least, a master-pupil relationship, has developed quickly. There are certain sporting encounters that seem to sum up the passing of one generation and the arrival of the next, and this was undoubtedly one of them.

When a tyro comes along and dispatches a former champion as conclusively as this, an air of poignancy often attaches to the occasion. But one was left not so much with a feeling of sympathy for Bates - the winner here last year and on five previous occasions - as a sense of excitement at the prospect of what Henman might go on to achieve.

Both Bates and David Felgate, Henman's coach, said they thought he had the potential to reach the world's top 30 or 40, an assessment based not just on his considerable innate ability but also the speed with which he has been improving. Just over a year ago, when he had got himself up to 146 in the world rankings, Henman broke his leg during a tournament in Singapore. When he returned to action in February, he was back down below 300, but since then he has worked his way rapidly upwards again, culminating in victory in an ATP Challenger event in Seoul at the weekend, which lifted him to a career-best position of 116.

Faced with an opponent at the top of his form, the 33-year-old Bates was always likely to find it a struggle to stay with him, all the more so given that he was under-equipped for the task in both mind and body. He admitted afterwards that having announced earlier in the week that he would give up the game after next year's Wimbledon, he was already winding down mentally. He was also troubled by a sore wrist - not that he was going to use it as an excuse for one of the most comprehensive defeats of his career.

"The big difference was the weight of shot," Bates said. "He was hitting it so much harder than me off the ground that within three or four strokes I was completely outmanoeuvred. He was hitting winners at random." The power Henman managed to generate, always allied to control, gave the lie to the theory that abounded during this year's Wimbledon that his tall but very lean frame was unsuited to the era of heavy-artillery tennis.

Timing is what really matters of course, and Henman's was exquisite, in particular on his cross-court backhand. Bates could not be accused of making many unforced errors. Winners simply flowed from Henman. Everything, though, stemmed from his serve, which was so dominant that he lost only two points on it in the first set and three in the second.

Bates was in trouble from the moment Henman stretched athletically to hit a winner with a forehand return of serve and put himself a break up at 2-1 in the first set. By the fifth game, when Bates was broken again, the older man was already beginning to puff out his cheeks. He was not tired, just daunted by the scale of the task on his hands.

In the second set Henman again broke when Bates served at 1-1. Three aces then helped him hold his next service game to love. Any remote chance Bates had left disappeared in the game after that when another devastating Henman backhand ripped down the line to give him a 4-1 lead. "Sometimes you go out and really struggle," Henman said. "But today was a case when I served well, passed well, and moved well from the baseline, so I'm really pleased."

Rusedski's straightforward victory over Petchey brought him revenge for the defeat he had suffered at Queen's Club in June when the erstwhile Canadian was making his first appearance as a Brit. He and Henman, respectively No 1 and No 2 in Britain, have never met. ''It should be a great match,'' Rusedski said. If you want to see the future of British tennis, and at last it is well worth looking at, then Telford is the place to be this afternoon.