Tennis: Henman's hopes hit by Kucera

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THE SCENE was neo-classical, 18 marble statues surrounding the No 1 Court of Mussolini's Foro Italico, but on a cool evening Tim Henman was unable to sustain his form long enough to become the first Briton to reach the quarter-finals of the Italian Open men's singles since John Lloyd in 1978.

The British No 1 was defeated by Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 in an evenly-matched contest (Henman, No 8 in the world, is ranked four places above Kucera). Henman's determination to retrieve shots on the slow clay court and respond with winners was a feature of the match, as was the sportsmanship displayed by both players, particularly when it came to the habit of checking marks after doubtful calls.

Henman took advantage of Kucera's edgy serving in the concluding game of the opening set, though not before conceding his first set point when neither he nor the umpire was certain that Kucera's cross-court backhand had landed wide. A glorious forehand lob won the set on Henman's third set point.

Kucera broke in the opening game of the second set, but double-faulted twice to peg Henman back to 2-2. Henman, who had two chances to break in the sixth game, lost his serve for 4-5. Kucera belted a drive volley long and over-hit a backhand to be broken when serving for the set, but edged the tie-break 7-5.

The decisive break came with Henman serving at 2-3 in the final set. He saved one break point with a backhand volley, but hit a forehand wide on the second.

Meanwhile, Pat Rafter was in the pink, from the health of his game to the colour of the mottled shorts he was wearing. The 26-year-old Australian, who is able to adapt his natural attacking style to all surfaces, is only three matches away from becoming the world No 1.

Just two hours after Yevgeny Kafelnikov was presented with the ATP Tour's No 1 Trophy on the Centre Court, marking the Russian's rise to the top on 3 May despite six consecutive first round defeats, Rafter applied pressure by reaching the quarter-finals with a 6-1, 7-6 win over Andre Agassi.

Kafelnikov followed Rafter on court and was defeated by Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian former French Open champion, 7-6, 6-1, having created two set points with his opponent serving at 5-4 in the first set. Carlos Moya, of Spain, who held the No 1 position for two weeks in March, had already lost his opportunity to return there by losing 6-3, 7-5 to Franco Squillari, an Argentinian "lucky loser" who took the injured Todd Martin's place in the draw.

Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion who has dominated the world rankings for six years, and Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, also started the week with a chance of ending it as No 1, but both were beaten on Wednesday.

Rafter needs to win the tournament in order to add the No 1 ranking to the United States Open title he has held for the past two years. He would become only the 17th player to reach the top since the ATP computer rankings started in 1973.

Today, Rafter plays Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, who defeated Britain's Greg Rusedski in the second round and saved two match points against Nicolas Kiefer in the second set yesterday before overcoming the German, 3-6, 7-6, 6-3.

Agassi, meanwhile, cut a pathetic figure in the interview room, his naked torso covered by a towel draped over his left shoulder and tape strapped across his chest and dodgy right shoulder. But the Las Vegan's tone conveyed anything but self-pity. "I played like a schmuck; I am a schmuck," he said.

After a promising opening game, in which he created a break point, Agassi suffered agonies of insecurity for the rest of the first set, which was completed in only 27 minutes. Rafter, serving with impressive consistency, was able to feed off Agassi's errors and vary his attacks with compact volleys and accurate groundstrokes. "It's the best I've played in a long time," Rafter said.

Results, Digest, page 31