Tennis: Henman talks up Open prospects

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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN is confident of his chances in next week's Australian Open, despite making a losing start to his preparations.

Henman was beaten 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 by Mark Philippoussis in his first match in Melbourne's Kooyong Classic, following a defeat in the Qatar Open final on Sunday to the German qualifier, Rainer Schuttler. But he believes he is playing consistently enough to challenge for the year's opening Grand Slam.

"I think my game since Wimbledon has been most consistent. I've beaten most people," the 24-year-old said, "but now that Pete Sampras has pulled out of the Open - he's one guy I haven't beaten - if I can continue playing the way I am then I will be difficult to beat."

Henman's best achievement in a Grand Slam to date was losing to Sampras in last year's Wimbledon semi-final. He has changed his routine this year after playing in the last two finals in Sydney.

"I would have arrived on Tuesday and played that day in Sydney and then gone and played five matches as I have done in the last two years, and that takes a lot out of you," Henman said.

"To go into the Australian Open I would like to be a little fresher, so that was my reasoning in playing here before the Australian Open. I think playing in the last two Sydney finals is perhaps a little bit too much with regards to preparation for the Australian Open."

Henman could be top-seeded for the first time in an ATP Tour event in Britain next month. The British No 1 will take prime billing at the Guardian Direct Cup in Battersea Park, London, from 22 to 28 February, if he maintains or improves his present world ranking of seven.

Henman is the highest-ranked player to have confirmed his entry for the Battersea tournament.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian holder who is ranked 11 in the world, and Karol Kucera, the Slovakian ranked eight, both announced yesterday they too would be competing in the London event.

It means that five of the world's leading 11 players will be on view at Battersea since Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, who is ranked nine, and the former Wimbledon champion, Richard Krajicek, the Dutchman ranked 10, are also among the entries.

Henman's possible top seeding at Battersea is an indication of the remarkable progress he has made in the past 12 months. At the tournament last year, he was ranked 21 in the world and not among the eight seeds, although he did beat Krajicek, then seeded fifth, in the first round before falling to Kafelnikov in three sets in the third.

Also in Australia is Steffi Graf, the former world No 1, who continued her comeback yesterday by beating the American Serena Williams to reach the quarter-finals of the Adidas International in Sydney.

Graf played only a handful of tournaments in 1998 because of a series of injuries, primarily wrist, ankle and knee problems, that prevented her from playing for most of 1997 as well. She missed last year's Australian Open through injury and has not won a Grand Slam title since the 1996 US Open.

However, she came back strongly late last year, and began this year ranked No 9 after winning two of the last three tournaments she entered and 12 of her previous 13 matches, including wins over the leading three players in the world.

Graf continued that winning form against Williams yesterday, weathering a second-set wobble and coming back from a break down in the final set, to beat the teenager 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 and reach the last eight of the Australian Open warm-up, where she will face Serena's older sister, Venus.

Venus Williams, ranked No 5, could prove Graf's toughest opponent in the lead-up to next week's Grand Slam tournament. She overpowered the South African player Amanda Coetzer to earn a meeting with Graf.

Graf is understandably eager to improve on her recent progress. "It's been a while since I started a year without any injuries. It's a great feeling," the 29-year-old German said.

"The wrist and knee, it's all fine. It's a completely different way to approach the game. I'm able to work on my condition. That hasn't been the case for a long time."

Of yesterday's win over the younger Williams sister, Graf said: "I played a very good first set, but I had a total letdown in the second. I started to make an extreme amount of mistakes. I felt very flat suddenly. But to come back was good. I'm happy I was able to raise my game at that point."

The Australian Open champion, Petr Korda, began legal proceedings yesterday challenging the right of the ITF to appeal against his lenient treatment for a positive drugs test.