Tennis: Henman makes the most of a very late call

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The Independent Online
A bizarre week for British tennis came to a head last night when colleagues of various nationalities smiled benignly and sarcastically offered congratulations, "for finally having an Englishman at the world championship".

The Englishman was also a winner, albeit of a match that was meaningless in the wider scheme of things. Tim Henman capitalised on an away-day from Telford to Hannover by defeating Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-4, 6-4, after 68 minutes in a one-off round-robin match at the ATP Tour Championship. Kafelnikov had already qualified for today's semi-finals.

Having grudgingly accepted the Canadian-born Greg Rusedski at the start of the week, after close scrutiny of his British passport, the international tennis world was mildy amused to see Henman, Oxford born and bred, being ushered through the back door as the ninth reserve for the eight-man Tour finale.

There was an exception to the general good-natured banter prompted by Henman's dash to replace the injured Sergi Bruguera. The Spaniards were seething. Losing Bruguera (No 8) with an injury to the lower back after he had played two of his three matches was bad enough. And offence was taken when the ATP Tour's call down the rankings for an alternate was answered by Henman (No 17) rather than Felix Mantilla (No 16).

The problem was, time was running out and the choice of substitutes was limited. Thomas Muster (No 9) had already earned the $40,000 alternate's fee here by stepping in for the injured Rusedski against Carlos Moya on Thursday might.

Marcelo Rios (No 10) was back home in Santiago, Chile. Richard Krajicek (No 11) was injured, Alex Corretja (No 12) was ineligible under the ATP Tour's rules because he was already playing doubles at an ATP Challenger event in Andorra. Petr Korda (No 13) was having a nose operation. Gustavo Kuerten (No 14) was in Brazil. Goran Ivanisevic (No 15) was injured.

When it came to No 16, say the Tour, Mantilla's telephone rang and rang without response. After the midnight deadline (local time) was passed, the call went out to Henman, No 17, and arrangements were made for him to play his singles quarter-final against Jamie Delgado in Telford at 11am (Henman won, 6-4, 6-2) and then leave for Hannover by private aircraft.

Mantilla was not impressed when he answered telephone calls from the Spanish media yesterday. "It's not true that they [the ATP] called me or left a message. They have all my phone numbers, those of my coach and of the clubs where I play. I am feeling very, very angry. They don't have respect for me or the Spanish players. It seems they don't want to see us in their kind of tournaments."

The allegations were denied by Peter Alfano, the ATP Tour's vice-president for communications. "Mantilla was called. There was no answer," Alfano said. "We called all the players down the list with the offer, `You have to pay your own way there, but we will give you $10,000 and the opportunity to win $100,000'. I'm sorry he feels that way, but the rules say you go down the players in the order of ranking . You can't just go to the player you want.

Rusedski lost his two round-robin matches, against Pat Rafter and Pete Sampras, and then withdrew because of a hamstring injury. Henman left with a 1-0 record after making pounds 900 per minute.

"I've got mixed emotions," Henman said. "I feel I've gate-crashed this party, that I didn't deserve to be here. But an atmosphere like that gives you a huge lift and makes you determine to qualify next time. I'll make a donation of a portion of the money to charity."

Last year, Henman had the good fortunate to compete at the $6m Grand Slam Cup in Munich as the second alternate. He won $425,000 as a semi- finalist.

Spain did have some cause for celebration yesterday. Carlos Moya, who defeated Pete Sampras in his opening round-robin match, joined the world No 1 in today's semi-finals. Sampras's win against Rafter, 6-4, 6-1, eliminated the Australian and enabled Moya to qualify on a countback of games.

Moya will play Kafelnikov for a place in Sunday's final against either Sampras or Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, who eliminated Michael Chang, 6-4, 7-5.