Tennis: Henman sets the record straight

WIMBLEDON '96: British tennis' favourite son predicts better things to come after overcoming Swede in convincing style
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The Independent Online
On a day of interruptions, Tim Henman bridged a break of 23 years when he became the first Englishman since Roger Taylor to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals. In a rain-affected match which returned the players to the Centre Court on five separate occasions, Henman beat Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson 7-6, 6-4, 7-6.

The 21-year-old from Oxford is now just two steps away from a Wimbledon final, and if the persistent bracketing with Fred Perry is a little presumptuous, then there is little doubt that England has at last unearthed a men's tennis talent of some substance. Gustafsson, the world No 37, was outplayed on the points that mattered and became the second higher-ranked player to have been put to the sword by Henman following the disposal of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the No 5 seed, in the first round.

Henman himself, in the patois of another sport, says he will take each match as it comes from here, but even he has now been taken with the confidence of his Union Jack followers. He will not commit himself to a statement on this tournament, but believes he can become a greater player than the one we have seen this fortnight. "I think there is better tennis to come in my career," he said. It is not that bad already.

During the intervals yesterday Henman rested in the changing-rooms, kept warm and nibbled at some food. Whenever he emerged he seemed to nibble away at Gustafsson's confidence. "I don't think they [the breaks] had that much influence because we both came out and served pretty well," he said. "I don't think he played quite as well as he did in his last match but I was making life difficult for him."

Henman's run of success this year has done much to erase the memory of 12 months ago, when he became the first player in the history of the championships to be disqualified after a ball he hit in anger struck a ball-girl on the head. He received sacks of mail in the aftermath of that incident, but not a single critical message was brought to his door. He believes he is now a stronger figure for that day.

"Along with breaking my ankle that was the lowest point of my career," he said. "But I learned a lot from that and I was able to move forward.

"Twelve months ago it was a slight concern and I thought that was going to be my label. That's another incentive to play good tennis and wipe the memory of that out."

The support for Henman was no less unswerving yesterday. "The crowd support was unbelievable and even if I hit four terrible shots in a row they still picked me up," he said.

"It's a great atmosphere to play in and I don't think anyone can understand it until they play in it. It's very enjoyable and definitely lifts me. It probably makes life more difficult for my opponents and they probably feel they are playing against 15,001 opponents."

In the quarter-finals Henman plays either the Swede Thomas Johansson or Todd Martin, of the United States. He has played them once each, beating Johansson at Seoul in April but losing to Martin at Queen's last year. The American led by two sets to one when the match was suspended last night.

Henman is not trembling at the thought of playing either. "I am pleased with what I have achieved but there is still more tennis to be played," he said. "There are still some very good players in the draw, but if I do play good tennis I'm sure I have a good chance of winning again."

There was support for this opinion from the vanquished. Gustafsson conceded the crowd did him no vocal favours, but acknowledged that the greatest power inside the Centre Court was across the net from him. "He played the big points better and I didn't play that well today but that was because of him," the Swede said. "He put a lot of pressure on me.

"It was much faster than other courts and on faster courts you have to play more offensive, but I got off to a shaky start with my volleys and I didn't know whether to stay back or attack.

"Tim is a guy for the future, and guys for the future have great nerves. You can tell that by the way he handles himself off court. It's just a matter of time before he gets really good. Give him two or three years. But he can reach the final. Why not?"

Goran Ivanisevic, the runner-up in 1992 and 1994 went a step nearer to maintaining a sequence of a place in the final every two years when he defeated Australia's Pat Rafter 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-1. He will now meet another Australian, Jason Stoltenberg, a 6-2, 7-6, 6-2 winner over Jakob Hlasek.

More reports, results, page 22