Tennis: Confident Henman crushes Rios

NO MATTER who ends the week as the top man in tennis, Britain has made an emphatic mark on the game at the close of the year. Within 16 days, Greg Rusedski has outplayed Pete Sampras, the world No 1, to win the Paris Open, and Tim Henman has capitalised on the fitness problems of Marcelo Rios, the world No 2, at the ATP Tour Championship.

Henman's victory against the Chilean left-hander here last night, 7-5, 6-1, was in their opening round-robin contest of the tournament. But the result, and the manner of it, may signal the end of Rios' duel with Pete Sampras for the No 1 ranking and drive the American to a record sixth consecutive year at the top.

Rios has been carrying injuries, particularly to his back, for months. But when the he decided he was fit to make the trip from Santiago, Henman could do no more than make sure that his serve was solid enough to punish his opponent and that his groundstrokes gave Rios little scope for optimism.

Henman conceded only five points on his serve in the first set and nine in the second set. Rios, who showed signs of a limp during the ninth game, appeared to lose heart after losing the opening set on the first break point of the match.

The first indication that Rios was there for the taking came when he misjudged a backhand return that Henman flighted to his forehand on the opening point of the 12th game.

Rios allowed the ball to pass him, and gave a despairing look when it landed in the corner. He then hit a forehand over the baseline and netted a forehand after Henman returned a second serve. Henman then teased a mistake on the set point by playing a clever backhand down the line after retrieving a lob.

Henman compounded Rios's discomfort by saving the only break point against him, in the third game of the second set, with a superb angled forehand volley, and then broke for 3-1 with a backhand to the corner and a forehand down the line.

Boos and jeers accompanied Rios's tentative play in the concluding games, in contrast to the rousing greeting he had received from knots of Chilean supporters when he arrived on court.

"To beat Henman, you've got to be 100 per cent," said Rios, who had won their two previous matches, in Key Biscayne and Rome, this year. "My back is really bad," he added. "I'm going to see how I wake up tomorrow. I want to play, but the body is the one that's stopping me right now."|

Henman said: "Whether he is injured or not, I felt really confident with my own game, and felt I had a good chance whoever I was playing."

Rios is not the only contender who will be checking aches and pains this morning. Andre Agassi practised for half an hour yesterday, but was still not certain whether he would be able to risk his suspect back against Alex Corretja, of Spain, today. Rusedski is on standby as the substitute.

The tournament continued yesterday where it left off a year ago, with Sampras dispatching Yevgeny Kafelnikov in straight sets. Their last match, 12 months ago, was in the final. Kafelnikov, undeterred after losing yesterday's opening round-robin contest, 6-2, 6-4, boldly predicted a reunion with the world No 1 next Sunday.

"I'm almost 100 per cent certain that I'm going to play in the final against Sampras," the Russian said, promising to stay on course by winning his next two matches, against Carlos Moya and Karol Kucera.

Sampras smiled benignly when told Kafelnikov's scenario. "I'm not looking that far ahead," he said. "Yevgeny, I'm sure, has planned out the whole draw at this point. I'm concerned about my match tomorrow. For him to say, 'I'm in the final', is a bit... put it this way, I wouldn't say something like that."

The second round-robin contest had the crowd cheering and stamping their feet as Moya recovered from a set down to defeat Kucera, 6-7, 7-5, 6-3, after two hours and 28 minutes.

TODAY'S ORDER OF PLAY (from 1pm GMT): A Agassi (US) v A Corretja (Sp); P Sampras (US) v C Moya (Sp); K Kucera (Slovak) v Y Kafelnikov (Rus).