Tennis: Henman's dire form results in expected defeat

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MEETING PETE SAMPRAS at Wimbledon can be a mixed blessing. Beat him, as Richard Krajicek did in the quarter-finals in 1996, and the title is yours for the taking. Mark Philippoussis was playing well enough against Sampras to have done the same last summer, until a knee injury put him out of the quarter-finals after he had won the opening set.

Tim Henman has been frustrated by Sampras in the last two Wimbledon semi- finals. Like Philippoussis, Henman has struggled to make his mark on the remainder of this season. The pair met yesterday in the third round of the Paris Indoor event, and defeat, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, virtually ended Henman's hopes of qualifying for the eight-man ATP Tour Championship in Hanover on 23 November.

"After Wimbledon, I was fifth in the race for Hanover," Henman recounted. "From then until now, to have not made Hanover is disappointing. There are a couple of other guys who are immediately in front of me who look like they're probably going to stay ahead of me. Good luck to them; they deserve it."

Having squeaked a three-set victory on Wednesday against Juan Carlos Ferrero, a highly promising young Spaniard, Henman said he had approached that match by pushing thoughts about the "consequences" out of his mind.

"What's the worst thing that can happen?" his coach, David Felgate had said to him. "You don't make Hanover, finish the year 12th, 13th in the world; for the first time in seven years, your ranking doesn't get better."

Henman caught the drift: "If that's the worst thing that can happen, it's not too bad. If someone said to me four years ago, 'You finish 12th in the world, you don't make Hanover, and you feel like you're disappointed with your year', I think it goes to show the standards that I've set."

A similar philosophy preceded Henman's match against Philippoussis, although the only thought in the Briton's mind during the opening set may have been, "How much worse can this get?" Two familiar ingredients of a Henman downfall - a faulty serve and a wayward forehand - were in evidence when he was broken in the second game of the match, and again in the second game of the final set. In between, he was able to pull his beleaguered game together and put himself in a position to take control.

Philippoussis chastised himself after netting a forehand after creating a break point in the opening game of the second set, Henman taking advantage of the escape by holding serve and then breaking for 2-0 with one of his most impressive forehands of the match: a service return struck so fiercely that Philippoussis was unable to control his volley.

Another spectacular forehand, this time driven to the corner, enabled Henman to save a break point at 3-1. Henman saved four more break points before levelling the match.

Philippoussis was the man under pressure as the third set opened, Henman worrying him into offering three opportunities to break. The Australian responded well, saving the first with a smash and the second and third with unreturnable serves. Henman's weaknesses re-emerged in the next game. He missed a forehand to 15-40 and double-faulted on the second break point. Philippoussis was home free.

"I could have played better, definitely," Henman said. "I wouldn't say that my expectations were particularly high, given the way I've played in the last couple of weeks."

Henman emphasised that he would not like his psychology with regard to a worst case scenario to be "construed as making excuses". He added: "Between now and next year I want to make a lot of improvements. I've got to work much harder on my movement and my physical strength on the court."

To help in this regard, Henman may recruit Kieron Vorster, of Kenya, coach and fitness trainer to the South African Wayne Ferreira. "I don't think it's rocket science," Henman said. "I've got to get out there and work hard. There's no reason why next year I can't have a better year than I've had before."