Tennis: Henman finally finds his focus

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AMERICAN SPORTS fans are preoccupied with the baseball exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who are closing in on the home run record. For British tennis, home runs used to signify early defeats. Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman have changed that perception.

Henman, the No 13 seed, joined the sixth-seeded Rusedski in the third round of the United States Open yesterday, defeating the Spaniard Felix Mantilla, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-4. Henman's next opponent is Michael Kohlmann, a 24-year-old German qualifier, ranked No 149 in the world. "He has played three matches in the qualies and two in the main draw, so I am sure he will be feeling confident," Henman said.

The Britons, who mark birthdays tomorrow (Rusedski's 25th, Henman's 24th), are maturing encouragingly. Regular Henman watchers were nonetheless treated to a familiar scenario during the Mantilla match - blistering start, neat finish and plenty of ups and downs in between. Mantilla, ranked No 18 (he will be remembered in Britain as last year's Bournemouth champion), does not need such motivation.

A near flawless opening set, during which Henman served and volleyed beautifully and attacked Mantilla's serve at every opportunity, concluded ominously, Henman needing seven set points before securing it after only 33 minutes.

Spectators on Court No 3 began to warm to Mantilla's cause towards the end of the second set after the Spaniard made a lengthy protest over a line call on game point at 5-5. It was a close decision, and Mantilla subsequently hit a forehand over the baseline to give Henman a break point. The Briton failed to convert, hitting a return long off a second serve.

Henman double-faulted to present Mantilla with two set points in the 12th game. After saving the first, Henman hit a forehand volley over the baseline. As usual, spectators wandered about the stands while points were being played. Henman, distracted at the time, said afterwards: "It is difficult, but that's what makes the US Open what it is. You wouldn't want to change that."

There were five service breaks in the third set, Henman double-faulting when leading 5-4. "When I served for the set the one thing I said to myself was 'make a lot of first serves', and I only made one in that game," he said. "It was important to bounce back." He did, recovering the break in the next game and serving out the set with the match two hours old.

The fourth set, which took 37 minutes, was more comfortable from a British point of view. Henman broke for 2-1, was unable to make the most of any of three opportunities at 4-2, but served out to love three games later.

"I think I need to be a little more focused in my return games," he said. "There were a couple of stages when I was a little bit erratic from the baseline. There were a few difficult situations, and I was able to come through."

It has taken Henman nine sets to advance to the third round, one less than Rusedski, who will try to reach round four today and hope to have enough breath left for his candles tomorrow.

Having survived consecutive five-set matches, saving two match points against the South African Wayne Ferreira and one in defeating the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach, the British No 1 expects to be stretched again today in his third-round match against the experienced Dutchman, Jan Siemerink, a fellow left-hander. "I have always had close matches with Siemerink, and this will be another tough one," said Rusedski, who has lost in four of their seven previous encounters.

Improving his fitness in two lead-up tournaments to the US Open after being sidelined for two months by the ankle injury which wrecked his Wimbledon challenge, Rusedski must have hoped for a less demanding start to his campaign here, where he was a finalist last year, losing to Australia's Pat Rafter.

"I have never won two matches in five sets in a row before," he said. "If I had played the big points better in the third set against Ulihrach, I probably would have been in the locker-room after four sets. I wasn't aggressive enough in certain situations. But I feel much fresher than after my first match with Ferreira, so I don't think it is going to have any affect. After a day off, I'll be looking forward to my next match."

Siemerink, ranked No 21 in the world, frequently raises his game against higher-rated opponents. Wisely, he does not expect Rusedski to be a softer option because of his previous exertions. "I don't think it's going to be a problem for him," Siemerink said. "I think he will be ready for me."

Steffi Graf's score - 6-1, 6-1, after 42 minutes - was reminiscent of the former champion's heyday. Her victim, the 16-year-old Mirjana Lucic, from Croatia, contributed 33 unforced errors to the third round match.

Martina Hingis, the defending champion, worked hard to defeat Amelie Mauresmo, of France, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Jana Novotna, who won her first grand slam singles title at Wimbledon in July, advanced to the fourth round of the women's singles with a 6- 3, 6-2 win against Sandrine Testud, of France, who is ranked No 17. Novotna's best performance at the US Open was an appearance in the semi-finals in 1994.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Greg Rusedski (GB) v Jan Siemerink (Neth)

(Siemerink leads 4-3)

Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score

1993 Osaka hard last 32 Rusedski 6-4 6-1

1994 Key Biscayne hard first Siemerink 6-4 6-7 6-3

1996 Hong Kong hard last 32 Siemerink 2-6 6-4 6-4

1996 Nottingham grass semi-final Siemerink 7-6 6-3

1997 Zagreb carpet last 16 Rusedski 4-6 6-3 6-2

1997 Paris carpet last 32 Rusedski 6-4 6-3

1997 Stockholm hard semi-final Siemerink 4-6 7-6 6-4

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