Tennis: Henman's world view

A week with the game's highest flyers in Hanover will demand a harder approach from Britain's No 1
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the more admirable things about Tim Henman is his relentlessly positive outlook. Negatives do not find a place in his vocabulary and, given the nature of his profession, that is no bad thing.

At a promotional launch in Birmingham for April's Davis Cup tie against the United States on Thursday, Henman was happy to be photographed alongside the vast trophy but declined to touch it, saying he would be prepared to grasp the Cup the day Britain won it.

Likewise, Henman goes into this week's ATP Tour World Championships at Hanover in confident mood, notwithstanding his adverse record against the bigger names in the eight-man field. "This week is something I've been working towards all year," he said. "But it has been a year of two halves, that's for sure. Until Wimbledon I was very, very ordinary but since then I have played consistently, won tournaments and beaten some of the best in the world.

"I feel proud to have made it to Hanover, but now I want to do some damage and win it. I had a good indoor run at the end of the season, so there's no reason why I can't finish off the year in style. I won't need any motivating, these are the World Championships."

It will be an advantage that, although this is his official debut, Henman is familiar with the geography and atmosphere of the event. Last year, when one of the Hanover Eight, Sergi Bruguera, cried off with injury midway through the week the call went out for Henman to stand in for that evening's round-robin match against Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Having just won a quarter-final contest that morning at the National Championships in Telford, he was whisked to Hanover by private jet, beat Kafelnikov 6-4 6-4, and then popped back to Telford to claim the title there for the third straight year.

The win over Kafelnikov (the only one the Russian suffered in Hanover until he lost to Pete Sampras in the final) netted Henman pounds 60,000. Becoming national champion enriched him by pounds 9,000.

That victory was one of three which Henman holds over Kafelnikov, the others being in the Tashkent final two months ago and in the first round of the 1996 Wimbledon, when the Russian turned up as the newly crowned French Open champion. Set against those three are six defeats, the most recent at the Paris Open indoor event earlier this month.

At least Henman has the boost of wins over Kafelnikov, the man who pipped Greg Rusedski for the final qualifying spot in Hanover. Against the top two contenders, Sampras and Marcelo Rios, the British No 1 has so far drawn a blank, having lost twice to Rios and four times to Sampras, his friend and practice partner.

Henman's most recent loss to Sampras, in the Vienna quarter-finals last month, brought this comment from Tony Pickard, once Britain's Davis Cup captain and Rusedski's former coach: "There was so much respect from Henman, no way the young man was ever going to get into the match."

So perhaps ruthlessness will need to supplant respect when the Hanover draw is made late tomorrow afternoon, a sensible precaution against any last-minute injury or illness crises before the championships get under way, in two round-robin groups of four, on Tuesday.

Avoiding Sampras's group would be good news for Henman, but if he is to carry through his stated intention to go the distance, he may have to play the world No 1 somewhere.

Sampras would certainly like to think so, since going the distance will be an imperative if he is to retain his top-gun ranking for an unparalleled sixth successive year. His record since the World Championships took over from the Masters and relocated from New York to Germany in 1990 is powerfully impressive. He has qualified for all nine World Championships and won four times - 1991, 1994, 1996 and 1997.

Sampras has just spent six weeks in a row in Europe, seeking points to protect his No 1 spot, though he always acknowledged the crunch would come in Hanover. Where there were two people in hot pursuit of Sampras there is now only one, the Chilean Marcelo Rios, since Patrick Rafter opted out of Hanover to rest an ailing knee in preparation for the opening of a new season in his homeland, Australia.

Rafter's withdrawal, together with the decision of another Hanover qualifier, Richard Krajicek, to pull out, have a knee operation and be ready for the Australian Open in January persuaded Sampras to speak out recently against the demands being imposed on the leading players.

Sampras himself is performing despite a dodgy back which occasionally goes into spasm, while Rios is handicapped not only by a back complaint but also by the sort of attitude problem which ensures that everyone in the sport is pulling for Sampras to lift his sixth No 1 crown.

The thought of having to put up with a sourpuss like Rios as their top asset is guaranteed to wipe the suntans from the faces of the ATP Tour's Florida-based marketing men. Rios is perhaps the most talented left-hander since John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors but whereas they were mean but magnificent Rios is mean, moody and miserable, a terrible advert for a sport in search of a more customer-friendly image.

After a Sampras triumph, the Hanover outcome most people in the tennis world would welcome is a win for Andre Agassi, who has rebounded in 12 months from the depths of 141st in the rankings to fourth as if attached to a bungee rope.

Here is an example of supreme talent harnessed at last to dedication, just in time. The 28-year-old Agassi's stamina may no longer be quite what it was but he has put himself firmly on the line this year and delivered. Another World Championship to go with the one he won in 1990 would be merited reward.

It is a measure of Henman's form and confidence that he beat Agassi over four sets last month to win the Basle title. Of the other Hanover qualifiers the Spanish pair, Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja - the French Open finalists this year - are infinitely happier on clay than carpet, while the Slovak, Karol Kucera, is also well within the Henman handling range after a long and draining season.

If any of the above fail to show up for Monday's draw, of course, Rusedski would be into the event as first reserve. Welcome though that would be, Henman represents Britain's realistic hope of a first-ever world champion.

All he has to do is stay fit, keep taking great gulps of that elixir called self-confidence, prove more durable than Agassi, meaner than Rios and perhaps a shade less respectful to Sampras.

HEAD TO HEAD: HENMAN AGAINST THE BEST

PETE SAMPRAS

Sampras leads 4-0

1994 Japan Open Hard R16 Sampras 6-1 6-2

1995 Wimbledon Grass R64 Sampras 6-2 6-3 7-6

1998 Wimbledon Grass SF Sampras 6-3 4-6 7-5 6-3

1998 Vienna Carpet QF Sampras 6-0 6-3

MARCELO RIOS

Rios leads 2-0

1998 Lipton Hard SF Rios 6-2 4-6-6-0

1998 Rome Clay R32 Rios 6-3 6-1

ANDRE AGASSI

Series tied 1-1

1998 Los Angeles Hard F Agassi 6-4 6-4

1998 Basle Carpet F Henman 6-4 6-3 3-6 6-4

CARLOS MOYA

Henman leads 3-1

1996 Rotterdam Carpet R16 Henman 7-6 6-4

1996 Paris Carpet R64 Moya 4-6 6-3 6-4

1997 Sydney Hard F Henman 6-3 6-1

1998 Lipton Hard R32 Henman 6-1 6-4

ALEX CORRETJA

Corretja leads 1-0

1997 Paris Carpet R32 Corretja 6-3 7-5

KAROL KUCERA

Series tied 3-3

1995 Davis Cup Clay R4 Kucera 6-4 6-2

1996 Lyon Carpet QF Henman 7-6 6-2

1997 Nottingham Grass SF Kucera 6-4 2-6 6-4

1997 Basle Carpet R16 Henman 6-4 6-1

1997 Vienna Carpet QF Henman 6-4 6-1

1998 Sydney Hard F Kucera 7-5 6-4

YEVGENY KAFELNIKOV

Kafelnikov leads 6-3

1996 Rotterdam Carpet SF Kafelnikov 7-6 6-3

1996 Wimbledon Grass R1 H'man 7-6 6-3 5-7 4-6 7-5

1996 Cincinnati Hard R32 Kafelnikov 6-4 6-4

1996 Lyon Carpet SF Kafelnikov 6-1 6-3

1997 New Haven Hard QF Kafelnikov 5-7 6-3 6-4

1997 Singapore Hard R4 Henman 6-4 6-4

1998 London Carpet QF Kafelnikov4-6 6-4 6-2

1998 Tashkent Hard F Henman 7-5 6-4

1998 Paris Carpet R16 Kafelnikov 6-3 6-7 7-6

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