Tennis: Henman low, Moya on high

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The Independent Online
WHEN YOU get to match point and double-fault, disappointment is understandable. Tim Henman was so far down after his 6-1 1-6 7-5 loss to Chris Woodruff in the quarter-finals of the Newsweek Champions Cup at Indian Wells that he said: "At the moment I'm just not interested in tennis."

Henman did manage to regroup from that alarming comment, with Britain's Davis Cup clash against the United States in three weeks, by adding: "After a couple of days, a few rounds of golf, maybe I'll look back and realise I am hitting the ball well, that I am confident, that I can build from this."

However, on the day 22-year-old Carlos Moya took over as world No 1 for the first time, it cannot have helped Henman's state of mind to hear that Woodruff, an engaging fellow who hails from Tennessee, did not even realise he was match point down when Henman's fatal hiccup occurred. "Never knew that. That's amazing," he said when asked for his opinion on the double-fault. "I'm dumbfounded, don't know what to say, that's crazy. Match point, eh? I know how Tim feels. Last week in Scottsdale I missed four match points against Andrew Ilie and afterwards I was ready to put my sticks in the bag, thinking it wasn't worth it. Then I thought, `Hell, this ain't my first rodeo'."

Woodruff is more than entitled to think that tennis is not worth it, having risen to 30 in the world before a silly mishap in kicking an American football wrecked his knee, put him out of action for a year and saw his ranking tumble to 1,342. This year, the knee fully restored, Woodruff has climbed back to 550, but he had to survive qualifying to get into this event.

Ironically, that helped to hone his game and by the time he faced Henman, Woodruff had five wins tucked under the belt. Having overcome Greg Rusedski and seen Pete Sampras neatly removed from his path, Henman was entitled to savour at least his third semi-final showing of the year.

The British No 1 did well to recover from a first-set pasting, playing what he rightly termed "pretty smart tennis" by mixing up his game and inviting Woodruff to overhit, which he obligingly started to do. Set-all and game on. In a packed stadium only Henman's impassive parents, Jane and Tony, weren't yelling their favouritism for one man or the other.

Deep in the deciding set it began to look as if Woodruff's hard journey to get this far had taken its toll. "My legs were getting a little tight, so I kept stretching. I've played six matches plus a doubles." Having broken Woodruff to take a 5-4 lead, Henman gave the familiar raised clenched fist to his supporters' corner. Just one more service game. It was, alas, a game too far. Henman fell 0-40 behind, just as he had done against Rusedski in the previous round. On that occasion he had escaped; this time the path to victory was barred by an opponent whose determination had been sharpened by all the misfortunes he has suffered.

Woodruff levelled and then held serve to 6-5 before Henman's serve, patchy throughout, came to the rescue on the first match point, a 121mph winner. Then the forehand, the stroke that so often fails him in a tight spot, went awry again, directing a second match point low into the netting. After such a heart-warming recovery from imminent annihilation, it somehow seemed unfair that the seventh-seeded Henman should have shed so much sweat and still come out with nothing.

"There's not a lot you can take out of a match like that because it's all about winning and losing," said Henman. "The winning is the important bit."

The match was watched by the American Davis Cup captain, Tom Gullikson, who has been weighing up form here. Afterwards, Woodruff told Gullikson: "I would have liked to have saved that for Birmingham." Gullikson told him: "Just keep playing like that and eventually one day you'll be there."

While rehabilitating the knee, Woodruff played a lot of golf. His handicap, he says, is "about four or three", adding: "Golf is probably my favourite sport. I like golf better than tennis. I wish I could play professional golf, to be honest. I played Tim a couple of years ago at Doral when we were at the Lipton Championships but I don't remember who won. I just remember both of us were duck-hooking it that day." In which case the probability was, if Friday's tennis was anything to go by, Henman's ball flew deep into the trees and Woodruff's rebounded into the fairway.

Moya supplanted Pete Sampras as world No 1 last night by defeating the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten 6-3 1-6 6-1 to reach the Champions Cup final. Moya becomes the 15th player to reach the top since the inception of the ATP ranking system in 1973 and the first Spaniard to do so.

At the start of this tournament four players were in line to take Sampras's place if he failed, which he duly did. But so did Alex Corretja, Patrick Rafter and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Moya, however, surged through the field without dropping a set until the one he lost to Kuerten. There was a little good news, too, for Henman. He will move up to sixth when the rankings are announced tomorrow, overtaking Marcelo Rios, who lost the title he won here a year ago.