TENNIS: Henman's odd alliance triumphs

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a classic case of an Oxford man visiting a tennis club on the Riviera and being approached to play doubles by a Frenchman at a loss for a partner. They are granted a wild card at the last moment, and win the tournament.

Years ago, the pair would have shared a bottle of champagne. Yesterday, Tim Henman and Olivier Delaitre split a first prize of $155,400.

Their contest against the Czech Davis Cup partnership of Jiri Novak and David Rikl, which the Anglo/French alliance won, 6-2, 6-3, after 57 minutes, was supposed to be a supporting attraction to the main event at the $2.45m (pounds 1.5m) Monte Carlo Open, the singles final between the Latin Americans Marcelo Rios and Gustavo Kuerten.

But it proved to be the match of the day because a pulled muscle caused the Chilean Rios to retire after 54 minutes, with the Brazilian Kuerten leading, 6-4, 2-1.

Henman, acknowledging that winning is always sweet, said the most beneficial part of his first doubles success on a clay court was in terms of "practising in match conditions".

Keen to improve his play on the sport's slowest surface, Henman performed creditably in his opening singles match before losing in three sets to Fernando Meligeni, of Brazil.

He was pleased to advance through the doubles draw and to spend extra hours on the practice courts; work which should help his cause in the weeks ahead.

British players take to clay courts like ducks to the Sahara. The Yorkshireman Roger Taylor was the nation's last winner of the Monte Carlo doubles title, in 1970, partnering the American Marty Riessen. They defeated Pierre Barthes, of France, and Nikki Pilic, of Yugoslavia, in the final.

Greg Rusedski won the Bournemouth doubles title, on green American clay, with Marc-Kevin Goellner, of Germany, in 1996, supporting the theory that higher ranked players would prosper at doubles if they did not devote almost all their time and energy to the priority of singles competition.

Henman and Rusedski won the Guardian Direct Cup in Battersea Park in February, when they worked together with the object of improving Britain's Davis Cup prospects against the United States in Birmingham at Easter.

Henman also won an ATP Tour doubles title in Basle in 1997, with Switzlerland's Marc Rosset.

Although only an occasional doubles player, Henman has had some choice partners, including Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Marcelo Rios. The British No 1 partnered Sampras in Barcelona a fortnight ago, winning their opening match before Sampras withdrew from the tournament with a back injury.

Henman was not certain to play doubles when he arrived in Monte Carlo. Delaitre, in contrast, was anxious to try to add to his nine career doubles titles, but needed to find a replacement for his injured partner, Fabrice Santoro.

"All the French guys had teamed up together," Delaitre said. So he turned to Henman, whom he had defeated in five sets in the first round of the 1997 French Open. "He's got no friends," Henman joked. "I just felt sorry for him."

In the final, the scratch pair started slowly against Novak and Rikl, who have won seven doubles titles together. The opening game, with Henman serving, lasted nine minutes. There were 18 points, six deuces, two double- faults and an ace. But Henman held, and, 20 minutes later, the pair won the first set.

Rikl, the more vulnerable of the Czechs, had his serve broken for the third time as Henman and Delaitre took a 2-0 lead in the second set, and continued to treat the crowd to an impressive display of sharp tennis.

Unfortunately, the singles final which followed ended before the spectators had time to settle into what was supposed to be a duel over the best of five sets. They loudly voiced their disapproval when Rios's retirement was announced. Kuerten received $361,000, Rios $190,000.

The Chilean had arrived on court with his right thigh bandaged, and called for the trainer midway through the opening set. He decided not to risk the injury further after losing serve in the third game of the second set.

"Sometimes you've got to listen to your body," Rios said, adding that he first felt pain in the muscle two weeks ago. He will miss this week's tournament in Prague, but still hopes to compete in the German Open in Hamburg, which start on 3 May.

Henman and Rusedski are also scheduled to play in Hamburg, where it is possible they will team up in the doubles.