It was not exactly pistols at dawn, but Britain's top two seemed a lonely pair as the match began on a chilly, cloudy, desert morning, with spectators still drifting into the Centre Court. So intense was the concentration on both sides of the net, however, that Henman and Rusedski probably would have been oblivious even if the stands had been packed.
Their rivalry has raised British interest in the sport so much in the past four years that it was hard to imagine that this was only their sixth meeting. Two of the previous encounters were purely domestic affairs, with Henman defeating the Canadian-born Rusedski in the final of the National Championships at Telford in 1995 and 1996.
Henman, the world No 7, would also argue that he was unable to match Rusedski's spirit in their last match, in the concluding round robin of at the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover last November, because he had already qualified to play the Spaniard Carlos Moya in the semi-finals. Rusedski, a substitute at the feast, eagerly accepted a straight-sets win worth enough points to enable him to end the season in the top 10.
Serving being crucial to both players, it was interesting yesterday to see who would settle into a smooth rhythm first. It proved to be neither. Rusedski was broken in the opening game, after Henman's mishit backhand found a line on the second break point, and Rusedski capitalised on his opponent's loose first serve in the second game. Henman did not produce a first serve until trailing 0-40. He won the next point, but then hit a backhand long.
Although Henman continued to search for consistency on his first serve, Rusedski was unable to punish him as much as he would have hoped in the first set. Indeed, not a single ace came from Rusedski's racket during the opening period, in which he double-faulted three times.
Rusedski managed to save two break points at 3-3, but was unable to deny Henman in the ninth game. The umpire over-ruled when Rusedski's backhand volley to the corner was called out on the first set point, at 30-40. A double-fault gave Henman a second opportunity, and the Oxford man's return of serve caused Rusedski to dump a half volley into the net after 41 minutes.
Rusedski won the second set with surprising ease, 6-2, but the deciding set proved to be a close encounter before Henman ran out the eventual winner.
One player Henman will not be facing in either the semi-final or the final is Pete Sampras, who lost here on Wednesday night to the Spaniard, Felix Mantilla. The American shrugged off the threat to his world No 1 ranking, but he could not shrug off another early exit in this tournament. "I'm going to take this hard," Sampras said after a three-set defeat in the second round. "I don't like losing and playing the way I did tonight."
Sampras made 54 unforced errors, including a double fault on match point. He blamed a lack of matches this year, but was quick to say that was not enough of an excuse. "It's not the way I wanted to play here," he said. "I really felt this was a good year for me to do well."
Sampras was playing in just his third tournament of the year, after missing the Australian hard court season. He played at San Jose in February, but withdrew before his semi-final match with a leg injury suffered in the quarter-finals. Last week in Scottsdale, he won one match and lost in the second round to Jan-Michael Gambill. "Not having played many matches this year, you can't just try to find your form," he said.
Two unseeded Americans, Chanda Rubin and Serena Williams, played giant- killers at the Evert Cup, the women's tournament being staged here alongside the men's event. Rubin beat the top seed and defending champion, Martina Hingis, 6-3 7-6, while Williams beat Mary Pierce 7-5 7-6.