Tennis: Henman spurns a winning position

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Although one game alone lasted longer than it takes to thread all those beads in Venus Williams's hair, Tim Henman's adventure on the clay courts of the French Open was as brief as most obervers feared.

Henman and Jim Courier were among those who departed the championships yesterday, both having lost in five sets in the opening round. Henman was the No 14 seed, Courier an unseeded twice former champion.

Their respective status underlines how much progress Henman has made in a short time - the British No 1 was defeated by Courier in the final of the ATP Tour event in Qatar at the beginning of the year - but their results had a similar hollow ring.

Goran Ivanisevic, the No 4 seed, also joined the exodus, but his defeat by Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3, was another example of the Croat's propensity for handicapping his talent with confused tactics.

Courier, a winner at the Stade Roland Garros here in 1991 and 1992, had hoped his form on clay courts en route to Paris would lead to an improvement on his recent Grand Slam record. But defeat by Sweden's Magnus Larsson, 6-1, 6-2, 4-6, 1-6, 6-4, means that the American has now lost in the first round of two of his last three major championships.

In Henman's case, the disappointment stemmed from the fact that he seemed to have the beating of his French opponent, Olivier Delaitre, only to fade in what proved to be the two most crucial games of the contest. Delaitre, a wild card entry ranked No 143 in the world, won, 6-2, 2-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Having recovered after losing the opening set to lead by two sets to one, Henman looked far more confident than Delaitre. In fact, Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, a first-round loser in five sets on Monday, decided to leave the match and prepare for his return to London when Henman was leading 4-1 in the third set. "Trust me, this is over," Rusedski said, "C'est fini."

Delaitre did not think so, demonstrating that he was not as discouraged as he looked. He broke Henman's serve in the opening game of the fourth set, and was not put off when the 22-year-old from Oxford immediately broke back for 1-1.

It took 26 minutes to decide the next game, as Henman's serve was put under severe pressure by both his opponent and himself. They duelled through 13 deuces, Henman saving five break points but unable to convert any of eight game points - double-faulting to squander one - before being lobbed by Delaitre on the sixth break point.

The Frenchman went on to level the match, but then brought further problems on himself by losing the first three points on his serve in the second game of the final set. Henman failed to take advantage, and allowed two further break points to slip in the same game.

Henman compounded that by double-faulting on break point to lose serve at 4-4, pounding both deliveries long. Delaitre served the match out to love after three hours and 35 minutes.

It was not long ago that we were bemoaning the fact that British men were unable to gain a place in the main draw of the singles at the French championships, so we should endeavour to be philosophical about the latest results. At least Henman and Rusedski lasted five sets before having to seek sanctury in English pastures.

Neither player had been able to play enough clay court matches ahead of Paris, chiefly because they are still in the process of rehabilitating after injuries. Henman's elbow, like Rusekdski's wrist, seems to have survived the test.

"My elbow feels a hundred per cent," Henman said. "Having said that, I think it will be interesting to see how it reacts tomorrow. That's when I had the problems in Rome. It felt fine during the match, but next day it was very, very stiff. I do definitely feel that on this occasion there is not going to be such a reaction."

As for his four matches on clay since undergoing surgery to the elbow after losing in his opening match at the Lipton Championships in Florida in March, Henman said: "I haven't had the best of results, but I wouldn't say I'm greatly surprised. My preparation probably hasn't been the best. I want in the future to be feeling comfortable playing on the surface three or four weeks before the French, so then I can improve come this time of each year. That's when I'll be playing my best clay court tennis."

Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf, seeded to meet in the women's singles final, wasted no time asserting themselves yesterday. The 16-year-old Hingis, playing her first match since knee surgery, defeated Henrieta Nagyova, of Slovakia, 6-0, 6-2. Graf, the defending champion, eased past Paola Suarez of Argentina 6-1, 6-4.

Results, page 27