Tennis: Henman survives as seeds tumble

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The Independent Online
Having come within a dimple of elimination on the clay, Tim Henman was relieved not to join the top two seeds, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, as a first-round loser on an extraordinary afternoon at the Italian Open yesterday.

Henman, competing for the first time since undergoing surgery to his right elbow two months ago, saved three match points against Roberto Carretero. The Spaniard, ranked No 334 in the world, subsequently retired hurt - both in body and spirit - after losing the opening two games of the final set.

The score was 4-6, 7-5, 2-0, but the match was virtually won and lost during the 18 minutes it took to decide the ninth game of the second set. The players duelled through eight deuces, Carretero saving six break points, four of them before creating the first match point.

Carretero, rapidly losing confidence and bothered by a strained muscle which was nagging his left thigh, convinced himself that he had converted the opportunity, although his cross-court forehand drive landed wide after clipping the net cord.

The Spaniard insisted that the umpire check the mark. After an agonisingly long search, the official agreed with Henman and the line judge. "The mark was faint, but fortunately three of the four of us knew where the ball had bounced," Henman said.

Carretero double-faulted on the second match point and hit a backhand wide on the third. By this time he appeared totally demoralised, shaking his head after every perceived misfortune. There was a hint of desperation in the way he clouted the ball over the baseline on Henman's seventh break point.

The British No 14 seed lost only two more points in taking the set and going 2-0 ahead in the third set, after which Carretero walked to the net, held out his hand and said he could play no longer. "It was easy to see he was struggling mentally," Henman said.

"I suddenly had no strength in my leg," the Spaniard explained.

There may have been a touch of the Samson syndrome at work. On the precise date a year earlier, Carretero had risen to his highest world ranking, No 58, after winning the Hamburg tournament. Shortly afterwards he spent nine days in the army on national service, which necessitated having his long hair shaven. Neither Carretero, nor his game, has looked the same since.

He has won only two games in the interim, the second in the opening round at Hamburg last week, after which his ranking plummeted with the loss of the bulk of his ranking points.

Henman is the first Briton to win a match here since Buster Mottram, a proficient clay-court performer, advanced to the third round in 1982. Henman's success yesterday earned him a severe test of nerve in the second round, where he meets an Italian qualifier, the 25-year-old Davide Scala tonight, whose lowly ranking, No 210, will only serve to fuel the popular local support for his cause.

"To be playing and Italian tomorrow should be pretty lively," Henman said, having confirmed that his elbow had not caused the slightest problem. "I didn't think about it at all," he said. "I was just concentrating the match.''

Sampras and Chang tried the same approach, but it did not save them from making history as the first No 1 and No 2 seeds to be eliminated in the first round.

Until he played Jim Courier yesterday, Sampras had won his previous 23 matches against fellow Americans since losing to Chang at the 1995 ATP Tour Championships. Courier, who won, 7-6, 6-4, said it had been tough to be drawn against Sampras in the first round, "but I took the attitude that if I want to win this tournament, I have to beat everybody.''

Sampras, after rueing the opportunities he missed in the opening set, said, "Whatever Jim's ranking, he should be in the top 10, if not better." Courier is currently No 24. "Fortunately," Sampras added, "I've got the World Team Cup next week to get prepared better for the French Open.''

He will need to, having also lost in the opening round of his last tournament, the Monte Carlo Open, where he fell to Sweden's Magnus Larsson.

Chang was defeated by Hernan Gumy, of Argentina, 6-3, 6-2. "What I tried to do was to force him to stay back,'' the 54-ranked Gumy, said.

"I tried to get the best preparation possible,'' Chang said. "But my schedule was very busy. Asia is very important to me. Unfortunately, the hard court season in Asia coincides with the beginning of the clay season in Europe." Which sounds as if his game was stuck between clay and a hard place.

Steffi Graf, playing her first match after three months with a knee injury, struggled to a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over the American Chanda Rubin at the German Open in Berlin yesterday.