Tennis: Fans crank up the pressure on Henman

BEFORE THE country's sporting passions were transferred from Henmania to England versus Romania last night, there was a good deal of frustration along with the flag-waving at the All England Club.

With a shout of "Get your kit off, Henman!" echoing around Court No 1 - a reminder that British tennis has a slightly different tone nowadays - the 23-year-old from Oxford remained as outwardly calm and tastefully dressed as usual while winning his opening match.

It was on Wimbledon's newest show court last year that Tim Henman's campaign ended with a defeat in his second consecutive quarter-final. He failed to rise to the occasion against Michael Stich, the 1991 champion from Germany, who was playing his farewell Grand Slam tournament.

Although the atmosphere was in keeping with an overture yesterday, Henman betrayed signs that inwardly he was nervous, his performance confirming what champions, from Pete Sampras down through time, have said, that the first match is often the most difficult, emotionally if not technically.

Henman was expected to overwhelm his opponent yesterday, not least because Jiri Novak, a Czech ranked No 71 in the world, had arrived in London only a few hours before before the match.

There are many way to prepare for competition on Wimbledon's lawns. Some players chose to play in one of the lead up tournaments on grass court, here or in Europe. Others prefer to rest after months on the slow clay courts and then practise in England or on their own patch.

Novak's feet were still sliding on clay last week as he particated in an ATP Tour Challenger tournament in Zagreb, reasoning that he more likely to win ranking points on a familar surface. He succeeded, too, defeating a fellow journeyman, Mariano Puerto, of Argentina, in staight sets in the final. That was on Sunday morning, and Novak caught a flight to Heathrow yesterday morning.

Scheduled to play Henman in the concluding match on Court No 1, he probably came with the attitude that anything he gained would be a bonus. The sight of the flags of St George was a clear indication of the mood of the specatators - Henman was expected to deliver.

The British No 2, while erratic on certain pionts, made an encouraging start, breaking for 3-1 in the opening sset when his opponent missed with a forehand. Spectators began to shuffle uneasily when Henman was broken back for 4-3, hitting a backhand volley wide.

Although threatening Novak through several dueces towards the end of the set, Henman let himself down on crucial points, particularly on the forehand. When it came to a tie-break however, he managed to hold his nerve, even after double-faulting when leading, 3-1. He clinched the shoot- out, 7-4, in his second set point after 48 minutes.

Henman then edged the second set, regaining a break, crucially, for 7-5. Novak, however, silenced the British cheers by winning the third set, 7-5.

For a player who was supposed to have lost his confidence, Sampras settled nicely into his defence of the men's singles title, defeating the Slovak Dominik Hrbaty, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, after an hour and 21 minutes.

As Sampras said: "If you can't get up for an event like this, you shouldn't be playing the game." None the less, the American world No 1 surprised many people with the way he was able to set aside months of disappointing form.

"I don't know if it's mental or what it is, but this place over theyears has brought out the best in me, and you get a little bit more keyed up and fired up going out there at 2 o'clock on Monday," he said.

Hrbaty, a 20-year-old ranked No 46, came close to defeating Sampras in the fourth round of the 1997 Australian Open. The American trailed, 1-4, in the fifth set, recovering to win, 6-4. Sampras reasoned that a repeat of that marathon was unlikely.

"They were competely different circumstances," he said. "In Australia we played ona very hot day ona surface [rubberised concrete] that Dominik's a little bit more comfortable playing on. I was down and out, and I ended up winning that match and winning the tournament. Today I was playing on one of my favourite surfaces, and he came out a little bit nervous. But I thought I played pretty well, and served quite well."

Although Sampras's first serve wavered occasionally, he had faith in his second delivery. "Your second serve is even more important that your first serve on the grass," he said. " You're only as good as your second serve."

In that respect, Sampras was well above average, with 73 per cent of his second deliveries finding the target, although he double-faulted eight times. His returns were even more impressive, 79 per cent of the counters landing in, and he was able to convert six of 12 break points. Thirty- nine of Sampras's serves were unreturned.

His volleying skill's tended to unsettle Hrbaty, who must have wondered how Sampras contrived to punch home winners even when his strings had broken. "I go to church a lot," Sampras said with a smile.

Petr Korda, the No 3 seed who is endeavouring to build on his success at the Australian Open in January, having turned 30, made encouring start, defeating the Spaniard Javier Sanchez (the brother of Emilio and Arantxa), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

Tournament officials tend to take a deep breath whenever the American Jeff Tarango is in town - any town. Tarango is always eager to show that he is a player of substance rather than a Tempestuous sideshow. He went about his business yesterday, recovering after losing the opening set, 1-6, to defeat the experienced Dutchman Paul Haarhuis, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.