Tennis: Confident Henman looking for new strategy

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The Independent Online
Tim Henman's first encounter with the might of Boris Becker may have gone somewhat disappointingly to form for the British No 1, but in overall terms his experience at last week's Compaq Grand Slam Cup has been invaluable in giving him a fresh injection of confidence as he sets out to make next year an even bigger one than he has had in 1996, writes Simon O'Hagan.

Quite apart from the $431,250 (pounds 265,000) he earned - more than doubling his winnings from all his other tournaments this year put together - his victories over Michael Stich and MaliVai Washington in earlier rounds helped restore the lustre which had been dulled by the three successive first-round exits Henman had to end his season on the ATP Tour. And although he finished a comfortable second in losing 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 to Becker in Saturday's semi-final, his reputation certainly did not suffer and in some respects was enhanced.

For a set and a half Henman competed with Becker on equal terms, matching him in all aspects of the game and showing that his calm temperament could withstand exposure even to this harshest of environments. To play Becker on his favourite indoor surface in his home town is about as tough as it gets in tennis, and although Henman was eventually ground down, it was much more by his opponent's overwhelming physicality than the pressures of the occasion.

Henman came home believing that the difference between him and the very best players lies in the ability to sustain a high level of tennis over long periods. "I think it's a consistency thing," he said. "In the first set I was playing solidly. I was able to stay with someone of his calibre. He's probably able to continue playing like that for four or five sets. I think at the moment I probably couldn't do that.''

Becker's shrewd assessment of Henman's game was instructive too. He was surprised by his challenger's reluctance to come in behind his first serve, especially on a fast surface like the one being used here, and Henman, who readily accepted the point, now needs to go away and work on a new strategy with his coach, David Felgate.

These things take time, however, and it is almost certainly too much to expect Henman to maintain the rate of progress he has achieved over the last 12 months in which he has risen from outside the world's top 100 to No 29 on the ATP rankings. Players arriving on the scene have the advantage of their games being unfamiliar to most of their opponents, but as Henman becomes better known and meets more of the top men, he is not the only one learning from the experience.

It is the lot of any opponent of Henman's to be asked how far they think he can go, and Becker's prediction ("I think he's got a good future") was encouraging without it suggesting that he is about to storm the ramparts. He still rates Mark Philippoussis of Australia as the world's best young prospect. Henman, though, knows he can get better, and we will begin to see how much when he returns to action for a tournament in Doha early in the new year, to be followed by Sydney and then the Australian Open.