Tennis: Henman's plan to repel Rios

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IT HAS to be said that Tim Henman keeps the best of company on the practice courts as well as on the match courts. His hitting partners number Stefan Edberg (at London's Queen's Club), Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Marcelo Rios, the world No 1 elect, who today stands between Henman and a place in Sunday's final of the Lipton Championships, the biggest tournament outside the four Grand Slams.

Should Rios advance to win the title here, he would supplant Pete Sampras at the head of the game, becoming only the 14th No 1 since the ATP rankings began in 1973, and the second to reach the summit without having a Grand Slam championship on his CV (Ivan Lendl rose to No 1 in 1983, a year before opening his Grand Slam account at the French Open).

There are those who would argue that Rios is not good company, on the court or off it - Sports Illustrated marked Oscars' week by nominating him as "The Most Hated Man in Tennis" and reporters covering the French Open have awarded him the Prix Citron ("Lemon Prize'') for non-cooperation for the past two years - but he is idolised in Chile and can look forward to passionate support from local Hispanics the moment he steps on the Centre Court today.

Familiar though Henman is with Rios's warm-up shots, competing against the 22-year-old Chilean will be a new experience. That was certainly the case for Greg Rusedski, the British No 1, who was defeated by Rios, 6- 3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, in the final at Indian Wells, California, 12 days ago.

Henman did not need to consult his Davis Cup team-mate to know the score. "Rios definitely is playing the best tennis of anyone at the moment," the 23-year-old from Oxford said. "He's been very consistent this year, very difficult to beat. My game plan will be similar to my other matches this week, try to be aggressive, try to serve well and dominate the net.

"I'm playing very simple tennis, but it's very effective. I think that's what's paying off. Serve and volley is an important aspect of my game. I think when I've been playing badly, I've probably been a little too cautious, a little negative, playing too much from the baseline. It's pretty clear when I've been playing my best tennis over the last week I have been very aggressive. I think I've volleyed pretty well. It's stupid not to use those shots.''

Rios is alert to the pattern. "I practise a lot with him, he's a great serve and volley player, very tough to beat if he's playing good, and he's playing really good," the world No 3 said.

Henman's back-to-back wins this week against two current Grand Slam champions, Petr Korda and Gustavo Kuerten, underlined his ability to raise his game against quality opposition, just as he did when playing Pat Rafter, the United States Open champion, in the semi-finals in Sydney in January.

Thomas Enqvist, whose dodgy wrist broke down on Wednesday night, causing the Swede to retire when trailing Rios, 3-6, 0-2, in the quarter- finals, predicts that the Chilean will have the edge over Henman today.

"You have to say that Rios is a favourite," Enqvist said. "He's been playing really well this year. He played very good tennis last week in Indian Wells, and also this week here. If he gets control in the rallies, you're in trouble. You have to play aggressive.''

Although Rios's talent with a racket is unquestionable, Rios suffered a major psychological let-down when playing Korda in the Australian Open final. "It was his nerves," explained his coach, the American Larry Stefanki, a former adviser to John McEnroe. "Marcelo's feet didn't move, and with him, movement is everything.''

The Australian Todd Woodbridge noted that, "You beat Rios by outhustling him, keeping him off balance, mixing up your angles and speeds. When he's uncomfortable, he's out of his game.''

Rios might have the vociferous backing of the Latins in the crowd, but Florida has warmed to Henman's fluent style since he arrived here determined to end a run of worryingly poor form.