Tennis: Henman's happy ending

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The Independent Online
It is not so long since the only thing a match between Britain's best two tennis players would draw was hoots of derision, so a full house at Telford yesterday marked a distinct change for the better. The sport may not be booming yet but it is a long way from the sickly state it used to be in.

Tim Henman versus Greg Rusedski: it was a dream final for the Guardian Direct National Championships and one that the country would not have even dared to dream of as recently as two years ago. Two players in the world's top 50 men, come on pull the other one.

The statistics do not lie, even if they seem unlikely. Britain has two players among the elite for the first time in 18 years and in view of the great sense of achievement being expressed in that, it was only right that rank should prevail in the final. Henman, 27th in the world, beat Rusedski, 48th, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.

At least that is what the record books will say because the poor state of Rusedski's back undoubtedly had an influence. A fully fit British No 2 might have avenged last year's defeat in the final, one handicapped with a muscle strain very nearly did it anyway.

There was some apprehension in Telford when Rusedski almost defaulted during his semi-final with Paul Robinson. The walls of the international centre are plastered with two words - Henman and Rusedski - to lose the latter would have been an anti- climax for the event which sold all 2,200 seats for the final day when they used to have to give tickets away just to make the crowd look respectable.

The first crisis point yesterday then was whether Rusedski could lean over in bed to turn off his alarm clock without screaming for a doctor. He could, and although he sometimes looked like an old man in search of his lumbago lotion, he was sprightly enough to cause Henman problems.

"It was just difficult for me to stop and start, turn and twist,'' the 23-year-old who had to stand during the changeovers in the final set said. "If I was going in one direction I just had to keep going. But I was better than yesterday, I had more mobility.''

He also has a serve that is awesome in a world where 100mph is considered sluggish. The fantastic power he finds from his frame ought to be enough to cause stress fractures in reinforced steel, so the warm-up was a revelation. Where you expected Rusedski to gingerly pat the ball over the net, armed with painkillers, he banged the ball down so forcefully a linesman had to leave his seat to flee the line of fire. To no avail, the next ball caught him square in the midriff.

Henman, who had lost three successive matches coming into the tournament, had every reason to be distracted by this and was hardly helped by not knowing whether Rusedski would be banging down aces or pulling out of shots to preserve his back.

The champion broke to lead 2-1 but lost that advantage immediately, and when he lost the first set 8-6 on a tie-break his title appeared to be in jeopardy.

"I don't think I was as focused as I should have been,'' Henman said. "I had breaks in both the first two sets and lost them straight away. When you get to tie-breaks it's up for grabs for both players.''

Fortunately for Henman he withstood the test of nerve in the second tie- break, winning it 7-5, and with the option of a straight sets win gone, Rusedski succumbed to the ache in his back and retired from the court for seven minutes of treatment.

"I needed to work on the table,'' he said. "I had a massage and tried to stretch my muscles a little bit. I'm glad I finished the match. I had my chances and I still thought I could win.''

Even in the final set, at 3-2 up, he had two break points, but Henman, who had begun the match like a man in need of a rest, found the energy to eliminate that danger and then broke Rusedski to 30 in the ninth game of the set to win eventually in two hours and seven minutes.

"The atmosphere was different,'' Henman said, comparing his win of 12 months ago to yesterday's. "Last year I wasn't expected to win, but this time the roles were reversed. To win here was a great way to end the year for sure.'' It has been a pretty good year for British tennis too.

Steffi Graf broke down with a back injury at the end of the first set to hand Jana Novotna victory in the final of the pounds 300,000 Advanta Championships in Philadelphia yesterday. Moments after the third-seeded Novotna won the set 6-4, Graf notified chair umpire Donna Butler she would be unable to continue. The German's default gave Novotna her third consecutive tournament triumph. The victory was only Novotna's fourth in 29 matches against Graf, and her first since defeating her at the 1992 French Open. Graf had won the last 14 meetings between the two players.