Tennis: Henman conquered by consistency of Kafelnikov

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TIM HENMAN'S hopes of reaching the semi-finals of the Great American Insurance ATP Tour Championships disappeared yesterday when he lost a tight match 7-5, 7-5 to the Australian Open champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in Cincinnati.

Kafelnikov maintained his mastery over Henman - he has won eight of their 11 meetings - but the British No 1 insisted that his game had come right just in time for the US Open. Talking after his defeat, Henman said: "He plays so consistently around the baseline, picking his spot so well and making it very difficult."

"He's playing really well at the moment and although I think Sampras is probably favourite to win the tournament I think I would pick Yevgeny to come through to the final in the bottom half.

"But I couldn't ask for more and will definitely take some positives from this. I felt reasonably comfortable from the baseline, but it is my serve I am working on and it is this I have to try and improve."

Henman clearly believes that the tournament has provided him with a platform which will stand him in good stead for the US Open, the year's last Grand Slam, which begins in just over two weeks' time. Having suffered two opening- round defeats in his previous two events, it was important that he rediscovered some form.

"At last I have got some matches under my belt and will go to Washington next week with much more confidence than I started this week."

Henman added: "I am in a different position from the same time last summer. I feel I am a better player a year on and should also be fresher, having played less matches than this time last year.

"I have also learnt from what happened last year when I didn't finish the summer as well as I began it. I think I will go to New York a little later this time and I believe I can do better than before at the US Open."

Despite the defeat, Henman had his moments, earning a break point in the ninth game, though rebuffed by Kafelnikov's brilliant backhand pass, and working his way enterprisingly to the net in the second set.

This was Henman's best hope against the baseline strength of Kafelnikov and it earned him a break in the third game of the second set, which he held from 3-1 to 4-2.

Kafelnikov can reclaim the world No I ranking from Pete Sampras if he does better than the Wimbledon champion this week, and it showed both in his application and consistency, particularly with his fluent groundstrokes. Sampras also reached the semi-finals yesterday with a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 win over the Dutchman Richard Krajicek.

Kafelnikov returned serve well, rallied well and passed well, making it increasingly hard for Henman to get forward and broke back for 4-4.

The Russian then tenaciously worked a further break in a final game of three deuces on the Briton's serve, pounding a cross-court forehand on his fourth match point to force a Henman forehand into the net.

Results, Digest, page 23