Tennis: Henman in the comfort zone again

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The Independent Online
A WEEK of outstanding tennis continued for Tim Henman yesterday when he advanced to the semi-finals of the Lipton Championships, having left two current Grand Slam champions in his wake. The confidence which has grown with every match since Henman arrived in Florida was abundant as he swept past the Brazilian Gustavo "Guga'' Kuerten, the French Open champion, 6-2, 6-4 in only 65 minutes.

Henman's win against Petr Korda, the Australian Open champion and world No 2, in the previous round was impressive for the way the Briton unnerved his opponent, who was on the brink of rising to replace Peter Sampras as the world No 1. That victory was achieved after Henman had made a shaky start. Against Kuerten, his stylish serve-and volley style augmented by shrewd play from the back court, riddled the Brazilian's self-belief from the start on the Centre Court.

Henman, who has not dropped a set so far, will play either Marcelo Rios, the No 3 seed, who would overtake Sampras by winning the title, or Sweden's Thomas Enqvist.

In a swirling wind - "it was so unpredictable," Henman said, "that you seemed to be serving downwind" - the 23-year-old from Oxford found volleying more effective than passing shots, a situation that militated against Kuerten, whose powerful groundstrokes, particularly down the lines, dominated the slower clay courts of Paris last summer.

While Henman considered that the quality of his tennis has been superior during the calmer conditions of his third-round match against the Spaniard Carlos Moya, he was encouraged with the way he coped with the elements.

His serve was so consistent throughout the match that Kuerten gleaned only nine points off it, a mere three in the opening set. The only time the Brazilian advanced even as far as 30-30 on Henman's serve was in the sixth game of the second set.

The Briton's ability to dictate the points not only frustrated his opponent, who on one occasion threw down his racket and stamped on it, but also muted the support for Kuerten among the many Latins in the crowd.

Henman broke in the opening game and again in the seventh, Kuerten belting a loose shot over the baseline on the break point as though already despairing of his prospects. "I didn't feel comfortable at all on court," the Brazilian said. "He was always rushing me. I couldn't find a way to win the points easily or to really command the points. The first game was very important. He started to play better and better. He didn't give me any chance.''

Kuerten did manage to save a further six break points before losing his serve for 2-3 in the second set. From that point, the match was as good as won, Henman completing an excellent afternoon's work in characteristic fashion, with a confident serve and forehand volley.

It is difficult to reconcile Henman's form here with the five opening- round defeats which followed his win against Pat Rafter, the United Stated Open champion, in Sydney in January. Henman is currently ranked No 20 in the world. The way he is going, next Monday could see a new high, No 14 having been his best so far.

Our volatile friend Jeff Tarango blames Andre Agassi for giving him a bad name. "He told people that I made him cry," the Californian said on the eve of their quarter-final. "That was just to try to start a bad reputation for me, I think.''

At the time of the incident, during a tournament in San Diego, Tarango was eight years old, Agassi seven. Tarango was the winner. "I've never beaten Andre in the pros," he said. "The only time I beat him was the first time we played, in a tie-breaker. He got overruled on match point and he started crying.

"Andre is playing great," Tarango said. "It's been a week of changing fortunes for me. Let's hope it can keep going.''

The latest instalment of Martina Hingis versus the Williams sisters takes place in the semi-finals of the women's singles. The Swiss world No 1 renews her rivalry with Venus, having edged through her first tussle with the younger Serena in the quarter-finals.

Anna Kournikova advanced to the semi-finals with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 win against Lindsay Davenport, the world No 2, following up impressively on victories against Conchita Martinez and Monica Seles.