Tennis: Henman throws it away

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The Independent Online
THE heat and a man called Karel got to Tim Henman here yesterday as the Briton saw his game disintegrate in the final of the Sydney International.

Slovakia's Karel Kucera coasted to a straight-sets victory despite having a shoulder and neck injury, having had hardly any sleep the night before, and serving nine double-faults. A mark of Henman's poor form was that the normally placid 23-year-old smashed his racket into the ground after losing the first game of the second set.

The real damage had been done in the first when the world No 19 looked to be heading for his second consecutive Sydney title, racing into a 4- 0 lead. A badly out of sorts Kucera made one unforced error after another. But from then on, it was all Kucera as Henman lost his concentration and with it went his forehand and service games.

Kucera broke Henman three times to take the first set in 51 minutes. The sweltering sun on centre court at White City did little for Henman's disposition and when he was broken in the first game on the second set the red mist descended.

The outburst had the desired effect for the Oxford-born player who managed to break back. It was short-lived, however, as Kucera broke again in the third game and held on to serve out for the match in a stroke under 90 minutes.

Henman beat the world No 2 Pat Rafter in the semi-finals and appeared to be in promising form ahead of the Australian Open, which begins tomorrow. Despite his loss, Henman remained in a positive mood for a good run in the year's first Grand Slam. "My preparations have been ideal," he said. "I have had a lot of matches here this week and I feel very confident going into the Australian Open. Perhaps I can take the route Carlos Moya took last year when he lost to me in the final here, then went on to reach the final of the Open.

"It's been a good week and I made a great start to the match to break his serve, but Karel did not make many mistakes and managed to turn it around. The roles were reversed, I started to miss and he didn't. There were times after I led 4-0 when I was over-pressing and going for the big forehand," he said.

Testimony to the poor standard of the match was the number of unforced errors by both players - Henman's 36 to Kucera's 29. The win marked the third ATP Tour title for Kucera, one of the quiet achievers of the men's circuit who took his world ranking from 63 to 25 by the end of last year. He has been making giant strides since he started to work last May with the 1988 Olympic champion, Miloslav Mecir.

Kucera revealed that he had slept badly during the night, waking with pain in his neck and shoulder that required treatment twice before the start of the match. "Tim made a few mistakes and somehow I got back into the match," Kucera said. "I didn't know what to expect at 0-4. It was a big question for me, how I could win this match."

In the women's final the experienced Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario gave a lesson to the American teenager Venus Williams. The fifth seed won 6-1 6-3 in a lopsided final that lasted just 66 minutes against the 17- year-old who had knocked out the world No 1, Martina Hingis, earlier in the week.