Tennis: Henman at full stretch

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FOLLOWING THE fortunes of Tim Henman can be a nerve- shredding business. The matches which are down on the coupon for an easy win have started to become habitual struggles.

The British No 1 went out at Indian Wells last week to an American ranked 550 in the world, having missed a match point by double-faulting, and he floundered again in the early stages of his first contest at the Lipton championships against Cecil Mamiit, a 22-year-old from Los Angeles ranked 86. Having been awarded a bye into the second-round as sixth seed, Henman again looked alarmingly vulnerable. He was all over the place in the first set but pulled round commendably to put Mamiit away 3-6 6-3 6-2.

In the wake of Indian Wells, Henman had famously announced a lack of interest in tennis at that moment. "But that was only for 24 hours," he explained. "If you read too much into that comment you get the wrong end of the stick. I had a couple of days off, played some golf, as I said I would, and then practised as well as I've practised in a long time."

But, as Henman himself pointed out ruefully, it didn't show in the first set, against Mamiit. Attempting to dominate from the net behind a serve which is not working well invites trouble, and that is what Henman got. "It was a pretty bad dream," he said afterwards. "Early on I was really struggling. Everything was missing the mark and I was playing into his hands a little bit. But I know I've got more resolve than that, more options. The satisfaction is that I won by playing a game that isn't my most comfortable. I had to grind out some long rallies and I did that."

Now, in the third round today, Henman faces another puzzler of a challenge against Jerome Golmard, a 25-year-old left-handed six-footer from the mustard town of Dijon. Mustard is what Henman knows he will have to be against this awkward fellow, ranked 32, since he has already lost to him this year in the quarter-finals at Dubai and he inflicted what Henman catalogues as his worst-ever defeat, in the first round at the Australian Open last year, when he went out 11-9 in the fifth set. Set against those are a couple of victories for Henman, in straight sets indoors at the Tokyo event last year and at Wimbledon in 1997.

"I feel I know the right way to play Golmard," he said. "He's capable of beating a lot of good people and I know I'm going to have to bring my best to court. If I do that, I've got a good chance. He is unorthodox but effective. I will be trying to serve quickly because he has his racket strung pretty loosely and sometimes he doesn't control his returns very well, so the ball flies around. That suited him in Dubai, because the conditions were heavy and slow. The heat here should favour me more but I'm going to have to stay positive and be ready to rally."

Henman was a semi-finalist at the Lipton a year ago, so needs to do well to defend the ranking points he won then. He went up to sixth last week but a poor showing could see him slipping. "You are always going to be defending points if you're at the top end of the game," he said. "On the whole I have had a good start to the year and there's no reason why I can't go higher."

In Henman's world, the harder the path the better he tends to travel, which is just as well. If he gets past Golmard Marc Rosset, Karol Kucera, Thomas Enqvist or Alex Corretja could be waiting.

l Andre Agassi, last year's runner-up and the ninth seed, was beaten in his first match 1-6 6-3 6-2 by the world No 40 Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia. Agassi served successive double faults to crash to an embarrassing loss on his comeback after a hamstring injury.