Tennis: Henman finds key to unlock Korda's game

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THE musical chairs were rigid yesterday after Tim Henman's latest impressive performance at the Lipton Championships here. The British No 2 eliminated the world No 2, and phutt went Petr Korda's prospects of supplanting Pete Sampras as the world No 1.

Greg Rusedski's paper-thin chance of vaulting to the top from No 5 became no chance the moment Henman stepped on the court to play Korda. Rusedski, the British No 1, needed Korda to win by a walkover, and Henman was very much alive and, as the locals say, kicking butt.

No sooner had Henman lofted a ball into the crowd in celebration of a 6-4, 6-4 triumph that takes him into the quarter-finals, than Rusedski followed him on the Grandstand Court, and walked straight into trouble against Sweden's Thomas Enqvist. Currently ranked No 24, Enqvist proved too smart for Rusedski on the day, defeating him, 6-2, 6-2.

The one player still on course to overtake Sampras is the Chilean, Marcelo Rios, who advanced to the quarter-finals with a 6-2, 6-3 win against Goran Ivanisevic. Rios, who plays Enqvist in the last eight, must win the tournament to go to the top.

Henman's return to form continued to enhance the tournament, his strokes, both classical and improvised, pleasing the neutrals almost as much as his ardent British followers. During his third-round match against the Spaniard Carlos Moya, a bearded middle-aged American urged him along - "Come on, Timmy!" - as if endeavouring to convince his fellow front-row occupants that he was his coach. Yesterday, an old campaigner wearing a West Point cap emblazoned ARMY, noticed how edgy Korda was becoming under fire. "He's forcing his shots!" the old soldier exclaimed.

Korda was irritable at times, even complaining that ball-boys were standing out of position. The 30-year-old Czech, who fulfilled a lifetime ambition of winning a Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in January, was only two victories from becoming only the 14th player to rise to No 1 since the ATP rankings began in 1973, and the notion appeared to be playing on his nerves.

Worse still for the gifted left-hander, his opponent was playing some his best tennis of the year, far in advance of his performance when they met in Qatar in the quarter-finals of the opening event of the season. On that occasion, Henman pushed Korda, but was unable to crack him, the Czech winning, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, and going on to win the title.

Yesterday, Henman recovered from a tentative start, breaking back from 1-3 and securing the first set after 41 minutes. When the 23-year-old from Oxford led 3-1 and 30-0 with Korda serving in the second set, it appeared that the contest was as good as won. Korda broke back to 3-3, however, but his nerve did not hold when he served at 3-4, double-faulting twice to return the initiative to Henman, who served the match out to love after an hour and 25 minutes.

He now plays Gustavo Kuerten, the French Open champion, who beat Germany's Nicolas Kiefer, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the sixth seed, also joined Sampras, on the sidelines. The Russian seemed to be heading for the quarter-finals after taking the opening set of his match yesterday, but when Jeff Tarango is on the other side of the net anything can happen. On this occasion, the turbulent American simply put his game together and prospered, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Martina Hingis, who has experienced her share of closely contested matches against Venus Williams, came close to losing to the tall American's younger sister, Serena, in the women's singles quarter-finals. The Swiss world No 1 had to save two match points at 3-5 in the final set before edging a tie-break, 7-3, to win, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6.

The saddest sight of the week so far here was of the once great Monica Seles, 24, her fighting spirit intact but her body sagging for the want of fitness, labouring to defeat on Monday at the hands of Anna Kournikova, a 16-year-old picture of vitality.

Kournikova's verve filled the Centre Court again yesterday as she dismantled Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion, 6-3, 6-0, barely breaking stride from one point to the next. That took the 25th-ranked Kournikova into a quarter-final against the second seed, Lindsay Davenport.

Beating Seles, however, was a special event for Kournikova, whose maturing talent took her to the Wimbledon semi-finals last year. She squealed with delight after winning, 7-5, 6-4, describing the success as "probably my most enjoyable victory".

There was no spite in the statement. Quite the contrary. "Monica's always been the player that I admired most," the Americanised Russian explained. "It was my dream to play against her. I feel great that I played against her and that I won, of course. But I just want to say that she's a great athlete and I will always admire her."

One day Kournikova might tell her grandchildren about the time she beat her tennis idol. We trust that she will not gloss over the point that Seles, distraught by her father's illness and out of condition after two months' absence from tournaments, cut an almost matronly figure.

Kournikova expressed compassion. "I feel bad for her, for her dad, for what happened to her [when she was stabbed in 1993]," she said. "I think she was the greatest ever. If nothing had happened to her, I think she would win another 20 Grand Slams, or whatever."

Scores, Digest, page 31