TENNIS: Henman dismantled by superb Sampras
Saturday 17 October 1998
Having won his last two ATP Tour tournaments, the British No 1 was unable to sustain a promising week. He did not show anything like the strength of his recent form until the closing stages of a match that began to run away from him from as early as the second point.
The opening set flashed by in 21 minutes, Henman collecting only eight points on the way. Ranked No 10 in the world, Henman had the misfortune to play Sampras on an occasion when the 27-year-old Californian's form matched his reputation. Embarrassing though it was to watch from a British standpoint, the strokes that flowed from Sampras's racket were a joy. He has rarely played so well all year, except at Wimbledon. It was there that Sampras defeated a game Henman in the semi-finals. This time, on a fast court of powder-blue carpet rather than grass, Sampras's superiority was never in doubt.
The American, who had received the gift of a wild card from Boris Becker in order to enter an event which he hoped would bolster his prospects of ending a sixth consecutive year as the world No 1, was unrecognisable from the player who was beaten by South Africa's Wayne Ferriera in the first round in Basle last week - a tournament Henman won, defeating Andre Agassi in the final last Sunday.
How big a part nerves played in Henman's performance last night is difficult to tell, but he was unable to find consistency with his first serve and was broken at the start of the match. It was the first time his serve had been broken all week, and Sampras is not the man to spurn such incentives.
Sampras produced three aces in winning the second game, and Henman compounded his problems with a double-fault to lose the third. The Briton last lost a set to love against Marcelo Rios when the Chilean was on his way to usurping Sampras as the No 1 at the Lipton Championships in Florida in March. The question this time was whether he would be able to win a game at all.
Relief came at the start of the second set, but only after Henman had double-faulted for 30-30. Consecutive service winners pulled him out of trouble and put a game on his side of the scoreboard.
In his second service game of the set, however, Henman allowed Sampras to attack him again, and found himself a set and a break down after only 33 minutes. It was from this point that Henman began to show signs of his true talent. Unfortunately it was too late, Sampras having gained too much confidence to be denied a straight-sets victory.
Sampras closed the match by breaking Henman again in the ninth game, the Briton handicapping himself with his fourth double-fault on the first point and then being dazzled by two cross-court forehand shots by his opponent. Sampras finished with a masterstroke, an angled backhand half- volley worthy of any arena.
In today's semi-finals Sampras plays his fellow-American Todd Martin, who defeated the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, 6-4, 6-3.
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