To many of them, the manner of that four-set victory over Zimbabwe's Byron Black by 6-4 6-4 3-6 7-5 was totally irrelevant. It was enough to know that now Timbo would be going up against Pat Rafter in the fourth round. Never mind that Henman converted only four of his 22 break points, that his first service percentage was a woeful 47 and that he let Black off the hook time and again before moving in for a clean and impressive kill. Tim had won, and for those in the audience who had spent the night queueing on the pavements of SW19 that was all that mattered.
Henman, too, was happy. "My play is definitely getting better and better with each match. I know I could have done better on the break points but you have to tell yourself you are doing something right to get those opportunities. Keep going and you are going to get one of them." When the third and longest of the rain breaks drove the two players from the court on Friday evening Henman was a set and a break up after 65 minutes. Yesterday he needed another hour and 42 minutes to finish off the challenge of a man who hits double-fisted on both wings and who is one of the best returners of serve on the circuit.
Perhaps it was because Centre Court was flooded in sunshine, but Henman, the 12th seed, began in positive fashion yesterday, his first point being a penetrating serve followed by a crisply volleyed winner. He needed only 18 minutes to go two sets ahead and a straight-sets win looked well within his range. However, as the Henman serve began to falter he was severely punished by the excellence of Black's returns. To groans and cries of encouragement from a deeply committed audience, Henman dropped serve in the second game, a setback which cost him the third set when he wasted a glorious chance to get back level by letting three break points go begging in the fifth game.
The line calling, both automatic and otherwise, caused problems throughout. The service-line machine was malfunctioning, occasionally bleeping before the ball had been hit, and the umpire, Bruno Rebeuh of France, twice overruled in Henman's favour.
As Henman continued to fritter away chances in the fourth set Black was able to get on top. Henman again missed three break points, a failure which the white-capped Black punished at once by capturing the Henman serve in the next game. When the little Zimbabwean led 5-3 it seemed odds- on that Henman would be forced into a five-setter.
"He was dominating at that stage," Henman admitted. "But once I got aggressive when he served for that fourth set the game swung round very quickly. After that he was struggling to stay in the match." Black was not helped by what looked like a dreadful baseline mistake. No call came when a Henman shot appeared to land long, but this time umpire Rebeuh did not intervene, which persuaded a distraught Black to march to the umpire's chair, point in Henman's direction and complain: "This guy always gets the close calls." That cost Black his serve for the first time in yesterday's segment of the match and Henman needed no urging to seize command. His 12th ace sent him 6-5 ahead and when Black had to serve to stay in the match it proved beyond him. A netted backhand put him match-point down, then a mishit forehand which flew wildly out of court meant that Henman was into the fourth round and Wimbledon's second week.
Black admitted he was "still a little uptight" about the bad call afterwards and said he had reminded the umpire he needed to be fair to both sides. "I told the umpire I was having a hard enough time dealing with the crowd," he said. "But Tim played smart when he had to at the end."
Henman said he expected a tough match against Rafter because of the Australian sixth seed's serve and volley style. "I have played three guys so far who have operated from the baseline and I didn't find that particularly easy, especially as the standard of serving has got better with each match." The two have met twice before, winning one match each.
Another seed went out with the defeat of the Swede Jonas Bjorkman by the Dutchman Jan Siemerink. Bjorkman, seeded 11th and the winner at Nottingham last week, went out in five sets, 7-6 5-7 2-6 6-4 7-5. Only two seeds, Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic, are left in the bottom half of the draw.
Henman's section is much tougher and if he gets past Rafter he could then face the Australian Open champion Petr Korda in the quarter-finals and the defending champion Pete Sampras in the semis.
The Australian challenge strengthened when Jason Stoltenberg, a semi- finalist here in 1996, put out his compatriot Mark Woodforde in another five-set contest, 6-1 3-6 6-3 3-6 6-3. He now plays another Australian hope, Mark Philippoussis, who struck 29 aces in his 6-3 6-4 6-4 win over the qualifier Daniele Bracciali of Italy.
Play was cancelled for the day soon after 7pm when a second severe storm within an hour swept over the grounds. At that stage the defending men's champion, Pete Sampras, who began with six successive aces, was leading Sweden's Thomas Enqvist 6-3 5-5.
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