Tennis: Henman takes care of business

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THE GRASS was greener for some than for others at the pounds 463,000 Stella Artois Championships yesterday. Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski ensured that Britain will be represented in the third round and Pete Sampras is one match away from returning to No 1 in the world after seeing Yevgeny Kafelnikov lose his precarious hold on the summit.

Henman, who defeated Cecil Mamiit, 6-3, 7-6, was on the Centre Court for half an hour longer than Rusedski, who needed only an hour to beat Paul Goldstein, 6-3, 6-4. Goldstein, it may be remembered, eliminated Rusedski at the Australian Open in January. The American rarely threatened the British No 2 here, Rusedski hitting 13 aces.

There were no threatening clouds, planes were queuing in an orderly fashion to land at Heathrow, and Henman was taking his first steps towards Wimbledon, comfortably leading Mamiit, an American but no Sampras, by a set and a break and with two game points for 5-3.

It took only a momentary lapse of concentration to distort the picture. Henman double-faulted, Mamiit passed him with a couple of splendid service returns, Henman drove a forehand into the net, and with the game at 4- 4 it looked as though the British No 1, seeded No 3 here, might have a match on his hands.

Until then, Mamiit, a compact Californian of Filipino extraction ranked No 81 in the world, had done little to impress the spectators except twirl his racket like a drum major. Suddenly, he was serving with greater purpose and delivering the kind of angled groundstrokes that enabled him to take a set off Henman on a concrete court at the Lipton Championships in March.

Henman took care of business on that occasion, and did so here, but not before being taken to a tie-break, which he clinched, 8-6, on his second match point to win 6-3, 7-6, after an hour and a half. Henman, who had a bye in the first round, now plays Byron Black, of Zimbabwe, seeded No 13 and no stranger to grass courts, for a place in the quarter-finals.

Henman said afterwards: "Grass isn't the easiest surface to step on to and I was pleased with my first match. It got a little bit closer in the second set and to come through with a win in straight sets is very pleasing.

"I have never played particularly well here in the past and I am hoping to turn that around this year and continue my form into Wimbledon.

"Overall I thought my volleying was sharp and that's what you need to succeed on this surface."

A year ago, Henman defeated Goran Ivanisevic in the third round before losing in the last 16 to Laurence Tieleman, of Italy. It was the farthest Henman had progressed in five visits to the tournament, prompting him to comment yesterday: "This tournament, I think it's fair to say, has little bearing on my performances at Wimbledon."

The Centre Court at Queen's holds 7,000 and was pretty full, although the atmosphere was genteel compared with Henman's last appearance in Britain, in the pulsating Davis Cup tie against the United States at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena. "The Queen's crowd isn't quite a Davis Cup crowd," Henman said, choosing his words carefully. "It's a sunny afternoon. I'm sure a few Pimm's have been flowing, and I'm sure it's a pleasant afternoon for them."

Fair enough, but crowds tend to be roused by performances, and, while Henman's did not stir them, they were underwhelmed by Yevgeny Kafelnikov, whose reign as the world No 1 will end next Monday after yet another dismal display.

Kafelnikov was eliminated, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, by the Armenian Sargis Sargsian, ranked No 74. It was the Russian's seventh opening round defeat in his last 10 Tour events.

"I lost focus for a short period of time and basically that cost me the match," Kafelnikov said.

Kafelnikov's demotion will coincide with the meeting of the Wimbledon seedings committee. "I expect to be in the top eight seeds," Kafelnikov said. "I don't think I'll be in the top two. Pete [Sampras] deserves to be No 1, and you can pinpoint [Richard] Krajicek as No 2. I definitely should be seeded in the top four, but it's Wimbledon..."

Sampras, who had a tough time defeating Todd Woodbridge, the Australian doubles specialist, 6-4, 7-6, 6-4, now plays Wayne Arthurs, another man from Down Under, to go back on top. Arthurs, a 28-year-old qualifier, ranked No 182, will have achieved one of the upsets of the open if he wins.

Pat Rafter was challenging Sampras for the top position until the Queenslander was defeated at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, yesterday, 19- 17 in a third-set tie-break.

Sampras, who has finished the last six seasons at No 1 - a record that may never be equalled - said it was "irrelevant" whether or not he is No 1 when he goes to Wimbledon to defend the singles title a week next Monday. "It would be nice, but it's not the big priority," he said. "The way the ranking system works, it really comes down to the end of the year. "At this point, as far as the No 1 ranking is concerned, I feel I've done it."

What concerns Sampras is that he is able to erase the disappointment of losing to Andrei Medvedev in the second round of the French Open, the only Grand Slam title he has yet to win. Medvedev went on to lose to Andre Agassi in Paris last Sunday, which meant that Agassi, rather then Sampras, joined Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as only the fifth man ever to win all four of the majors.

"It was an unbelievable effort by Andre," Sampras said. "Looking a the way things went for him, he seemed destined to win it. He was almost down and out in a couple of matches. The French is the most difficult major to win in today's game. Andre's been in some difficult personal situations this year. It's great for him."

Results, Digest, page 29