Tennis: Henman opens season with swift success and avoids dawn

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The Independent Online
Tim Henman, the British No 2, opened the new tennis season last night with a straight sets victory against Javier Sanchez, of Spain in the first round of the $1m Qatar Mobil Open.

John Roberts reports from Doha.

Last time Tim Henman won a tournament, in September, he ended up wearing local robes in Tashkent. Last night, after winning his opening match of the year, he settled into the black and red fabric of a traditional sofa in the interview room at the Qatar Open here, comfortable in his status as a blossoming international competitor.

Although his rival Greg Rusedski is the top seed here, Henman has a lot of ATP Tour world ranking points at stake, having finished runner-up to Jim Courier last January. Apart from a few signs of nerves during the first set, the 23-year-old from Oxford gave an assured performance in defeating Javier Sanchez, 7-5, 6-1.

Henman's second round opponent is Guillaume Raoux, the Frenchman he defeated in straight sets in the third round of last year's Australian Open before falling to Michael Chang in the fourth round.

If Henman is successful against Raoux, he could find himself facing the wily Petr Korda in the quarter-finals. The Czech left-hander opened with a straight-sets win against Olivier Delaitre, a French qualifier.

This is an unusual tournament in several respects, not least because on this occasion it happens to coincide with Ramadan. As a consequence, play does not commence until 6pm, which is all very well unless inclement weather interrupts the schedule to the extent that dawn rises.

We were lucky last night. Although rain began to fall during the opening set of Henman's match, it was not heavy enough to drive the players off the court. Moreover, the threat of humidity causing the court to become too slippery for play has been eliminated to a large extent by the installation of heating beneath the concrete surface.

Sanchez complained once or twice about the rain, and some of the line calls, but otherwise the match progressed without a hitch. Even a cat crossed the court during the second set without delaying the proceedings too long.

The 29-year-old Sanchez opened in threatening mood, returning Henman's serves and breaking to 30 with a backhand across the court. Henman, refusing to be shaken, produced some fine groundstrokes to retrieve the break and took a 3-1 lead after Sanchez double-faulted and then belted a backhand drive over the baseline.

Henman's matches tend to feature at least one loose serve game, so his supporters were not too alarmed when Sanchez broke for 4-3, Henman netting a forehand on the second break point. Much of the mini-Henmania generated on the night emanated from a group of schoolchildren who had been given tickets by one of the local banks.

Rain began to fall as Sanchez drew level at 4-4, by which time Henman had recovered his composure and was hitting the more potent shots again. He required three break points in the 12th game to deny Sanchez the possibility of a tie-break, fighting through six deuces before luring his opponent into over-hitting a forehand and missing with a smash.

The first set took 48 minutes. Henman's determination ensured that the job was completed with a minimum of fuss and effort. He directed his shots with such confidence that Sanchez was 5-0 down before he was able to make a response, winning a game while Henman wound up to sign off for the night, finishing with an ace.

Korda was already back at his hotel, planning today's training schedule and leaving ample time to relax with his wife and daughter. Korda is breathing easier literally as well as figuratively since undergoing an operation to unblock his sinuses.

Difficulty with his breathing cost Korda dearly at the United States Open, it may be remembered, causing him to retire against Jonas Bjorkman after he had defeated Pete Sampras in the fourth round.

"It was a much bigger operation than I thought," Korda said, "and I won't fully recover for about half a year. But I have no problems breathing, and I haven't had to use nose drops since the US Open."