Tennis: Henman shows the heart of a fighter: Pete Sampras, the world No 1, ended an encouraging week for another British hopeful. Bill Scott reports from Tokyo

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The Independent Online
For his debut week in a top- level tennis event, Britain's Tim Henman could not have asked for more of a challenge than a match against the most formidable player in the game, the world No 1 Pete Sampras.

The result of yesterday's third-round contest at the Japan Open in Tokyo strictly followed the form book, with the American top seed and defending champion, Sampras, dominating 6-1, 6-2 in less than an hour and looking set for his sixth title of the year. But the 19-year-old Henman, a qualifier from Oxford, was blooded in high style in his first ATP Tour event.

'I really enjoyed it out there, it was good fun,' he said. 'That is what you play tennis for - meeting the top players on the show courts.' Sampras was awesome, losing only three points out of 21 on serve with 61 per cent of his first serves going in. But Henman's promising showing may mark the early stage of a long-awaited rise in the profile of British tennis.

Last week in Sun City, near Johannesburg and again at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo's neater, cleaner - and closer - version of the Docklands, representatives of the British men's game actually won a handful of matches. With Wimbledon constantly on the national sporting horizon, that can only be an encouraging sign.

In South Africa, Mark Petchey from Loughton, Essex, knocked out the world No 2, Michael Stich, in the opening round and advanced as far as the quarter-finals. This week, more than the cherry blossoms bloomed in Tokyo. Henman emerged a survivor after the first-round exits of Jeremy Bates and Petchey, a 6-1, 6-4 loser to the American David Wheaton.

Henman's boyish looks and slight build hide the heart of a fighter. The all-court player earned a victory here against a fellow qualifier, Kelly Jones, in the opening round and followed that up with a three-set, comeback win over the Australian Darren Cahill, now ranked a dozen places lower on the ATP Tour computer than the Briton's No 221 but only because he is returning after a long lay-off with a leg injury.

The coach David Felgate, who is travelling with Henman under an LTA scheme started in the summer of 1992 after Wimbledon, is more than satisfied with his pupil's progress. Felgate coaches three other promising young players, Andrew Richardson, Nick Cowan and Nick Gould. But under an agreement, he follows the cream rising to the surface: in this case, Henman.

The teenager finished well in the British Satellite circuit, an entry-level series of tournaments, and won the Indian satellite several weeks ago. That gave Henman the confidence and the ranking to try and qualify for Tokyo, a tournament with prize-money in excess of dollars 1m ( pounds 666,000) and an all-star line-up including Sampras, Michael Chang, Boris Becker and the former world No 1 Ivan Lendl, still a force at the age of 34.

In his own youth, Sampras was a prodigy, winning his first Grand Slam (US Open) at age 19 in 1990. But he gave Henman an encouraging assessment after their match. 'He's not a bad player,' Sampras said. 'He hits well and has a good forehand. But he needs to develop a big weapon. At age 19, he's still got a lot of time.'

With relative success still ringing all around him, Henman will follow the circuit to Hong Kong this weekend, where he hopes to earn a second qualifying place in next week's Salem Open. But his talent has already been noted. 'I would give him a wild card entry instead of the one that Bates and Petchey are trying to get,' one tennis insider said. 'He's the one with real promise right now.'

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