Tennis: Henman willed on to victory

There has never been a day quite like this on the lawns of the All England Club. People's Sunday '91 was something special. People's Sunday II was an extravaganza, a heady mixture of football and tennis ambience, Wimbledon 97 meets Euro 96.

For Eng-land! Eng-land! read Hen-Man! Hen-Man! Tim Henman's performance in edging out a resilient and courageous Dutch opponent, Paul Haarhuis, 14-12 in the fifth set, was the showstopper, and the crowd responded ecstatically to almost every point he scored. Unfortunately, there were times, particularly at the throat-straining, nail-biting climax, when they also cheered for Haarhuis' double-faults and unforced errors.

The Dutchman held his patience until the last point had been played. He then shook Henman's hand, packed his bag and strolled off the court without waiting for the victorious Briton to join him for the customary formal exit.

No doubt the Dutchman felt aggrieved by a section of the crowd's behaviour as well as disapponted in his ability to finish the match in his favour when he had the opportunity. Asked afterwards whether he thought the crowd had helped Henman, he said: "That's too difficult. The crowd did not upset my concentration, otherwise I would have lost 6-2 6-2 6-2."

"Quiet, please. Thank you," became almost a catchphrase for the Swiss umpire, Andreas Egli, who resides in Cambridge. More than once, however, he was required to add rather sternly a plea for spectators not to shout while points were in progress, "in fairness to the players."

Haarhuis had anticipated partisan support for his opponent, but he did not expect the Henmania to reach a level beyond what one normally expects in Davis Cup ties.

But this was anything but a normal occasion. British players had suddenly taken control of the lawns, or at least some of them had. Henman's triumph, which puts him into a fourth- round duel against a more formidable Dutchman, Richard Krajicek, the defending champion, was completed shortly after Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, had secured his place in the last 16 at the expense of a Davis Cup team-mate, Andrew Richardson.

And Rusedski's win, 6-3 6-4 6-4, followed a second-round victory for Mark Petchey of Essex, over Thomas Haas, a German prospect, and now plays Boris Becker, the greatest German player of them all.

How Petchey will fare in that one is a matter for the dream merchants. Becker certainly seems in the perfect frame of mind to take advantage of a tournament that threatens to be almost as open as last year's event. The fact is that whatever Petchey achieves now is a major bonus, Henman and Rusedski have already become the first British men to reach the fourth round since 1973, when Roger Taylor and John Feaver carried the flag.

Rusedski appears to be in a prime position. His next opponent is the American, Richey Reneberg, and Cedric Pioline's win against Wayne Ferreira means that there is no seed to face before the semi-finals .

Rusedski was Saturday's hero, retrieving a two-set deficit for the first time in his career to defeat the American, Jonathan Stark, 11-9 in the fifth set. The worry was that a back strain, caused while practising before the Stark match, might have impeded his progress. He was fit enough to cope with Richardson, another tall, big serving left-hander, and showed confident form after requiring six set points to take the opening set.

Henman also had six set points in the opening set against Haarhuis, but was unable to convert any of them. Indeed, the 22- year-old from Oxford caused jaws to drop by double-faulting to squander three of them. Haarhuis eventually won a first- set tie break, 9-7.

The Dutchman is not the type of competitor one is advised to feed with confidence. A year ago he advanced to the last 16 at Wimbledon, losing to MaliVai Washington, the eventual runner-up. In 1989 the Dutchman had the audacity to eliminate John McEnroe in the fourth round of the United States Open, an achievement which prompted my colleague, Bud Collins to describe him as "the best little Haarhuis in Holland."

Yesterday, after he had double faulted to hand Henman the second set, 6-3, and then repeated the process, double-faulting twice in losing the third set, it seemed that the Briton was about to overwhelm a demoralised opponent. This was far from being the case. Henman, it is true, had two opportunities to break in the second game of the fourth set, but he was denied by the Dutchman's serving. Haarhuis then took the initiative, luring Henman into missing two volleys, to be broken to 1-2.

Haarhuis's serve was under pressure in the fourth and eighth games but he saved break points and levelled the match by taking the set 6-4 with an ace on the final point.

The spectators took a collective deep breath and prepared for a grand finale. By now the atmosphere had grown, to extend the football analogy, to World Cup proportions. By now, also, any doubt regarding the All England Club's wisdom in staging a middle Sunday had evaporated. They had been in a Catch SW19 situation - play and be damned by rain, or don't play and be damned by criticism if it didn't rain - and the heavens held firm, grey, threatening, but thankfully not raining on the parade.

Haarhuis had the first chance of glory, but double faulted, hitting both serves long, on match point when leading 5-4. From that moment the crowd seemed to sense that their man would prevail, but they suffered many agonises before victory was achieved. Haarhuis saved the first match point against him with a timely serve with Henman leading 12-11 but was unable to to foil the Briton a second time, when a service return turned the tide in Henman's favour. Henman prevailed, 6-7 6-3 6-2 4-6 14-12, in three hours 58 minutes.

"From the word go it was something I have never experienced before," Henman said. "Just from the knock-up, which set the tone for the whole match, the noise was at a totally different level. I realised at that stage that I could not have had more support. The crowd played a huge part in the match."

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