Tennis: Henman mastered by Becker

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Playing Boris Becker on his favourite surface in front of his home-town supporters is about as close as it gets in tennis to sticking your head in the lion's mouth, and here yesterday Tim Henman felt the jaws close around him in a semi-final of the Compaq Grand Slam Cup which showed just how far Britain's No 1 has to go before he can expect to mount a serious challenge to the world's very best.

The score - 7-6 6-3 6-1 - was an all-too-accurate reflection of how Henman started out at the peak of his form before he gradually subsided under the colossal weight of Becker's all-court game. It was by no means a humiliation for the young man who has almost single-handedly changed the face of British tennis, but it did help to inject a note of realism into his prospects, and that may be no bad thing.

For just over a set Henman was every bit Becker's equal, an achievement in itself, and the packed Olympiahalle, far from chauvinistic in their attitude to this unliklely Brit in their midst, sat absorbed and slightly taken aback as Henman kept Becker on his toes and at the odd moment even gave him the run-around. But Henman had an unlucky start to the tie-break at the end of the first set, and although he responded to being broken early in the second by breaking back immediately, he lost some of his consistency and will as Becker came at him ever more relentlessly. The third set was mostly a formality.

"It probably wasn't one of my best matches," Henman said. "A lot of the time I wasn't allowed to play some of the tennis I would have liked." That was typical of the balanced view of things Henman has maintained throughout his surge towards tennis's high ground, and with one or two provisos this was a match won by his opponent as distinct from lost by Henman. "At the end of the day he's better than me," Henman said. "That's the bottom line."

There is one crucial area in which Henman remains deficient: his reluctance to come in behind what, at its best, is as good a first serve as there is in the game. At times he would take a couple of steps into the court and one willed him to go further. But then he would check and find himself scrabbling about on the baseline for a return at his feet.

"I'm surprised he is not coming in more," Becker said. "Often, if I make a quick return, he stays on the baseline and I catch him on his heels." Henman accepted the point. "I need to serve and volley. That's definitely an area I can go away and work on." It might require a lot of work. His coach, David Felgate, said: "He's played like that all year. He's confident playing that way."

Greater accuracy on his backhand would have helped too, but given the combination of who and where he was playing, Henman had little to admonish himself for. Becker, in his first match against Henman, formed a favourable impression of him but did not go overboard. "He's already come a long way, and the more you play the more you improve," he said. "Who knows how far he's going to get? He's got a great first serve, which is important. All in all he's a player with a good future."

This has been a remarkable end to a remarkable 1996 for the 22-year-old from Oxford, who began the year ranked 95 in the world and is finishing it inside the top 30. Henman, who only won his place in the world's richest tournament on the strength of the late withdrawals of others, goes home $431,000 better off after victories over Michael Stich and MaliVai Washington, more than doubling his previous earnings for the year.

Throughout it all the polite, natural, very understated Henman appears to have changed hardly at all. And he wasn't going to allow the scale of this occasion to affect him, strolling on to the court as if just another practice session lay ahead. Never mind that the sound system was pumping out "Jumping Jack Flash" or that the spotlights were flashing or that the man a few paces ahead of him was one of the game's all-time greats and that these were his people he was playing in front of. As if all that were not enough, Henman had to listen to the public address describing him as "from the land of Fred Perry".

Henman was at ease from the beginning, winning his opening service game to love. Becker was slower and less sure of touch, and at 1-2 and 30-40 there was a chance of a break for Henman. But he could not cope with a high-kicking second serve. Both men's serves continued to dominate until the opening point of the tie-break when Becker gained a mini-break courtesy of an outrageous net-cord and once he was 3-0 up Henman was out of it.

From 2-0 up in the second Becker was pegged back to 2-2 and survived a break point in the next game when Henman ballooned a return of serve wide. Henman was then broken to love at 3-4, and that in effect was that.

In today's final Becker plays Goran Ivanisevic, last year's winner, who came from two sets down to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov.