Tennis: Henman homes in on Hanover

A debut appearance in the World Championships beckons for Britain's No 1.

THE MERCEDES Super Nine tournaments in Stuttgart and Paris over the next fortnight are harbingers of the winding-up of the 1998 men's tennis season, with the leading contenders jostling for precious points, not to mention wall-to-wall dollars, to take them forward to the eight- strong World Championships field next month.

There is a likelihood that, for the second successive year, Britain will claim one of those eight places. In 1997 Greg Rusedski became the first British player to qualify for the season's summit meeting but it was not a happy occasion for our Greg. He damaged a hamstring and lost two matches at the round-robin stage of the event before pulling out.

Now Tim Henman, at present comfortably holding down eighth place in the points race, looks like achieving his career ambition of making it to the World Championships, which have gone under that name and have been staged in Hanover since the ATP Tour's breakaway move in 1990.

Previously the event was known as the Masters and held at Madison Square Garden, a title and location of fond memory. John McEnroe's is not the only voice pining for a return to those days. The shift to Germany was done on the wings of Boris Becker's success and TV deals, but now Boris's time has passed and the Championships will be on the move again come the Millennium.

Performances of the calibre he has been clocking up recently should see Henman do well in Stuttgart and Paris and clinch the Hanover berth. Henman actually finished up in Hanover 12 months back in bizarre fashion, replacing the injured Sergi Bruguera for one round-robin match. Henman was competing at the Nationals in Telford at the time but nipped over to Germany by private jet, beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-4 6-4, then flew back to Telford to win the title. So at least the setting for the World Championships will be familiar if he makes it on merit this time.

Having had a large hole blasted in his year by that ankle injury in June, Rusedski is struggling to make Hanover, lying 13th and 665 points adrift of Henman. However, indoor courts are the favourite setting for big boomers like Greg, though in 1997 he fell at the second round in Stuttgart before getting to the quarter-finals in Paris's Bercy Stadium, where he was beaten by Kafelnikov.

The Super Nine tournaments rank second only in prestige to the four Grand Slams. They are spread around the calendar and various surfaces, starting with American outdoor hard courts (Indian Wells and Key Biscayne), moving to European clay (Monte Carlo, Hamburg, Rome), returning to North American hard courts (Toronto, Cincinnati) and ending up on the carpets of Stuttgart and Paris.

Since entry is by designation, top-quality fields are assured at all nine of the Super Nine. Stuttgart is clocking up its fourth straight year of being able to boast all top-10 players, while Paris has averaged 18 of the top 20 for the last six years.

The number nine figures repeatedly in the success column of the Mercedes events. In the nine-year history of the Super Nines the biggest winners, with nine titles apiece, have been Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Though Sampras lifted the unusual Paris trophy (a bronze tree) in 1995 and again last year and Agassi was the Bercy winner in 1994, neither man has ever won the Stuttgart tournament, which is staged in the Schleyer Halle just down the road from the Mercedes factory and which is, accordingly, the most lavishly presented Super Nine event of the lot.

Both Americans have spent a record amount of time trudging around Europe this autumn. Sampras, nursing a back injury which caused him to default from the quarter-finals in Lyon on Friday, is in urgent quest of enough points to ensure he holds the surging Marcelo Rios at bay and finishes top of the rankings for a sixth straight year, an achievement which would surely remain unchallenged. Agassi's motivation is a restoration of self- esteem as well as ranking, a return to the top half-dozen where he indisputably belongs after the annus horribilis of 1997 which saw him dip to 141st in the world.

Henman and Rusedski have enjoyed memorable Super Nine moments this year. Henman was a semi-finalist at Key Biscayne, while Rusedski, propelled by a serve which saw him break his own speed record three times in a week, got to the final of Indian Wells. That both Britons were beaten by Rios says much for the all-round, all-surface merits of the stocky, po-faced Chilean left-hander who, in addition to those two titles this year, also won a third Super Nine, the Italian Open, on clay in Rome.

Rios, who picked up a cheque for $1.3m (pounds 788,000) at the Compaq Grand Slam Cup indoors at Munich last month and who won the Singapore title last week, has the form to unsettle - and possibly unseat - Sampras. Patrick Rafter, No 3 in the rankings behind Sampras and Rios, is, strangely, often an indifferent performer on indoor carpet but his all-action game guarantees he remains a major contender.

The Stuttgart title holder, Petr Korda, has mislaid his ability in recent months and none of the others in the field has anything which should unduly perturb Rusedski or Henman. Both have enjoyed a week's rest from belabouring a tennis ball, so will travel to Stuttgart refreshed and in the mood to inflict some damage.

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