Faced with Fernando Meligeni, an experienced Latin American capable of rallying all day and through the night if necessary, the British No 1 recovered from 0-2 to take the first set and picked up his game from 0- 2 in the third set to create a match point before being denied 6-7, 6- 4, 7-5 after two hours and 38 minutes.
Henman, seeded No 3 thanks to his ranking on friendlier surfaces, and given a bye in the first round, came within one shot of a place in the last 16 of a tournament that usually only caters for Brits in the hospitality village.
Meligeni, serving at 4-5 with advantage to Henman, missed with his first delivery. Henman returned the second serve with a forehand, and Meligeni astutely faded a forehand drive from the baseline towards Henman's forehand, the Briton's response on the run landing in the net.
The detail is necessary, not only to emphasise Meligeni's quality on a critical point but also to record a match-winning situation for a Briton on an alien surface against an opponent who was raised on the red stuff. Meligeni's world ranking, No 51, was not an accurate guide. Born in Argentina, but now representing Brazil, the 28-year-old left-hander has won three clay court titles and advanced to the quarter-finals of his last two events, in Estoril and Barcelona.
Henman scored the sixth clay-court win of his career in Barcelona, defeating the Argentinian Mariano Puerta in the first round before losing to the Spaniard Francisco Clavet. This week, as last, Henman took some consolation from his improved form on clay without minimising the disappointment of defeat. "It's a little bit like when I lost to [Jim] Courier [in the Davis Cup]," he said. "You feel very optimistic. That's difficult after you have just lost. You want to win those type of matches. But I know my game on clay is hundreds of times better than it has been."
That is undeniable, although there were passages during yesterday's contest when Henman was torn between his instinctive attacking game and the need to create points with prudent rallying from the back court, sometimes falling between the two styles. "Sometimes when I want to win a game, that's when I don't play my best; I can be a little bit impatient," Henman said. "The attitude that I've got to have - and when I play my best I do have it - is I've got to earn the point. You can't just take reckless risks."
Henman's first serve, and the reliability of his forehand, are key elements of his success, or failure. When he managed to steady both yesterday he was able to match the best Meligeni could produce. Considering that a double-fault cost Henman the second game of the match, he did well to gain enough confidence to break back for 4-5 and then recover again, hitting the back fence with a smash on the third point of the tie-break and proceeding to win the shoot-out, 7-5, with some potent serving.
Meligeni secured the only service break in the second set, for 2-1, and shook Henman in the opening game of the final set. Henman was at his best when levelling at 2-2 but, after almost turning the match in the 10th game, he lost his serve for 6-5 when his high backhand volley merely deflected Meligeni's drive. By now there were twinges of cramp in Henman's left thigh, though not in his style.
Britain's other representative, Greg Rusedski, who was also given a first- round bye, is due to play his opening match today against the Czech Jiri Novak, who defeated Marc Rosset 6-3, 7-5.
Boris Becker, whose father Karl-Heinz died on Monday night, withdrew from the tournament yesterday. Karl-Heinz Becker, an architect, designed the tennis club-house in Leimen, Germany, where his son learned to play.
Andre Agassi also withdrew from the event, citing a shoulder injury, the day after hitting balls with Prince Albert to demonstrate the power of his titanium racket.Reuse content