Tennis: Henman sustains clay-court habit

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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN advanced to the third round of the Italian Open yesterday with a 7-5, 7-5 win against the Dutchman Jan Siemerink, while his next opponent, Karol Kucera, practised on an adjacent court.

Kucera hit balls with his coach, the great Miloslav Mecir. The pair still feature in Britain's recurring clay-court nightmare, having been part of the Slovakian Davis Cup team, as player and captain, that rubbed the nation's noses in the red stuff in Bratislava in 1995.

Henman, who made his singles debut in the Davis Cup on that occasion, has improved beyond recognition since then, on clay as well as on the faster surfaces. His progress on clay this year has taken him to the doubles title (with France's Olivier Delaitre) at the Monte Carlo and the singles quarter-finals at the German Open last week. "The difference between my clay-court game this year and last year is chalk and cheese," he said.

While Henman became Britain's first representative in the last 16 here since Buster Mottram in 1982, Greg Rusedski was unable to follow his first winning match at the Italian Open with a second. He lost to the 22-year- old Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, a former world junior champion, 6-3, 6-3.

Siemerink, as Henman pointed out, is almost a left-handed version of himself, "an unconventional clay-court player". The British No 1 served consistently well and made few unforced errors, habits he will need to sustain when he plays Kucera today.

"That's going to be a really big challenge," Henman said of Kucera, who yesterday eliminated Michael Chang 7-5, 6-3. "Probably for the first time I've been the favourite playing two rounds on clay. Kucera will be the favourite going into the next one, but I'm confident I can spring a surprise."

Against Siemerink, Henman made decisive breaks at 5-5 in both sets, the difference being that in the second set he allowed an early break to slip. Among an array of fine shots, Henman's forehand pass for 0-40 in the 11th game of the second set, and his lob to secure the break, were particularly effective.

Among the peripheral attractions at the tournament is an opportunity to try to match Carl Fogarty's motorcycling skills on a replica of the British world superbike champion's Ducati against a video screen showing a race. The success rate is greater than Rusedski's in negotiating the clay courts.

Rusedski considered that he performed better yesterday, even though losing to Lapentti, than in defeating Australia's Scott Draper, 7-6, 7-6, in the opening round on Tuesday. Lapentti, Rusedski pointed out, is a higher class of clay-court player. He certainly outclassed the British No 2.

Toiling in the sun can be frustrating as well as tiring, and Rusedski vented his annoyance on two occasions as the second set followed a similar pattern to the first. It was hard enough having to bear the consistency of Lapentti's touch play, both at the net and from the back of the court, without having to suffer the umpire's overrule after a lineswoman called a shot out with Lapentti serving at 3-1, 30-30.

The volume of Rusedski's reaction to that was muted compared to the cry of anguish that followed his muffed backhand that took Lapentti to match point. "You miss that all the time! Why? Why?" Rusedski shouted.

The source of Rusedski's disappointment could be traced to the two games in which he had opportunities to recover breaks of serve. At 4-3 in the opening set, Lapentti saved two break points, one with a forehand pass, the other with a drop shot. But at 2-0 in the second set, Lapentti had to save six break points and battle through eight deuces. At one point he was warned for time-wasting.

Lapentti edged to game point with a splendid backhand drop shot, but Rusedksi was so angry after returning a second serve into the net to lose the game that he threw his racket the the ground.

Henman, the No 7 seed, was joined in the third round by Andre Agassi, who walloped the Spaniard Alberto Berasategui, 6-1, 6-2, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the world No 1, who swatted his Russian compatriot, Marat Safin, by the same score.