Tennis: Britons hold court in Hanover

Henman earns place in ATP Tour Championship semi-finals but even two wins may not be enough for Rusedski
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time, by George, when the king's road emanated from Hanover. It is fitting, therefore, that a couple of British ambassadors, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, should be allowed to take a bow today at the court of Prince Pete.

Pete Sampras, the winner of five Wimbledon championships and a total of 11 Grand Slam titles, reached another milestone yesterday by finishing at No 1 in the world for a record sixth consecutive year. His position was confirmed when Marcelo Rios, the only player capable of overtaking the American, retired from the ATP Tour Championship and returned to Chile with a pain in the backside.

The rest of the day belonged to Britain. Henman was in the happy state of having qualified for the semi-finals of the ATP Tour finale as the winner of the White Group. The 24-year-old from Oxford completes the round- robin segment of the tournament today by playing Rusedski, who has emerged from the substitute's bench with a chance of joining Henman in the last four.

Henman, who capitalised on Rios's aches and pains by defeating the world No 2 in straight sets on Tuesday, needed an amalgam of a skill, patience and determination yesterday to overcome Alex Corretja, the world No 6 from Spain, 7-6, 6-7, 6-2 after two hours and 29 minutes.

Rusedski, who arrived at the Expo 2000 Tennis Dome to replace the injured Andre Agassi against the walking-wounded Rios, discovered at the last moment that he would be playing the Spaniard Albert Costa, a fellow reserve. For Rusedski, that meant adjusting his strategy from competing against Rios, a fellow left-hander, to the right-handed Costa.

The switch also created something of a psychological problem for Rusedski, who found himself facing an opponent who had nothing to lose, least of all his reputation on indoor courts. Costa, ranked No 14, has never won a match indoors in six years on the ATP Tour. The sight of four walls and a roof had put him off his stroke in 15 matches.

Those expecting Costa to run for the barricades at the first flourish of Rusedski's serve must have been surprised at the way the match unfolded. Although Rusedski won, 7-6, 6-1 after an hour and 18 minutes, he needed 10 set points to secure the first set, winning the tie-beak 7-5.

"It was just nerves," Rusedski said. "I had love-40 two times and dumped six returns in the bottom of the net. I have to be happy that I came out winning the set. I lost my serve once in the second set, and broke him every other time.

"Playing Albert was quite a difficult transition. All day I thought I was playing Marcelo, and all of a sudden your frame of mind changes because you're playing a guy who has never won a match indoors. You feel the pressure, because it's one of those matches you feel you should never lose indoors. So I was a bit tight in there today, as you probably noticed."

Costa's indoor record will need to improve dramatically if Rusedski's prospects are to survive beyond this afternoon. Even if Rusedski manages to defeat Henman, he can only advance to the semi-finals if Costa beats Corretja afterwards in an all-Spanish duel. Otherwise, Corretja will join Henman in the last four. "Tanya Harding is flying in, so you never know," Rusedski joked.

Corretja's performance against Henman suggested that he would be the man to go through to play Sampras in the semi-finals as the runner-up in White Group. Henman will play the winner of today's concluding round- robin in Red Group between Carlos Moya, of Spain, and the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

The closest Henman and Corretja came to losing their concentration in a tense opening set yesterday was when a linesman corrected a call and Henman, in mid-shot, lobbed the ball into the rafters, where it lodged.

Leading up to the first set tie-break, Henman dropped only five points off serve, Corretja eight. Henman's game remained steady during the shoot- out, whereas his opponent made one error, hitting a backhand wide down the line for 2-3. Henman clinched the set, 7-4, with an ace down the centre.

There were four service breaks in the second set, Henman disappointed to double-fault to offer Corretja the chance to recover from 1-3. Henman then hit two poor returns from 0-30 on the Spaniard's serve when leading 6-5. Corretja made the most of the reprieve and won the ti-break 7-4.

As with Henman after the opening set, Corretja made the mistake of relaxing after taking the second. He was broken in the first game, after which Henman attacked at every opportunity, breaking a second time for 3-0 with a superb lob.

"I got a little bit nervous at the end of the second set," Henman said. "I was trying to do the right thing, but I don't think my legs were really helping me. The court seemed to get very sticky. I think that happens. You get a bit nervous and your feet don't move quite as well as you hope. I missed a couple of bad shots. I had to be stubborn. I had to persevere with my tactics [to be aggressive] and believe in that. That's definitely the way it unfolded."

Henman believes there is no pressure on him going into today's match against Rusedski. "I definitely don't like losing any matches, but it's a good situation for me to be in, having already qualified for the semi- finals," he said. "But there's still a lot to play for. Greg does still have an opportunity. Everybody knows we have a pretty healthy rivalry. We'll be extra keen to beat each other."

ATP TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP (Hanover) Today: C Moya (Sp) v Y Kafelnikov (Rus); T Henman (GB) v G Rusedski (GB); A Corretja (Sp) v A Costa (Sp).


Surface rd winner score

1995 National Championships

Carpet F Henman 1-6, 6-3, 6-2

1996 Ostrava

Carpet R16 Henman 7-6, 7-5

1996 National Championships

Carpet F Henman 6-7, 7-6, 6-4

1997 Vienna

Carpet SF Rusedski 6-4, 6-4

Henman leads 3-1