Tennis: Relief as Henman passes first test

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The Independent Online
A RELIEVED Tim Henman won his opening match at the Lipton Championships here yesterday and prepared to renew his acquaintance with Carlos Moya, the Spaniard he defeated to win the Sydney title early last year.

Greg Rusedski, meanwhile, in disposing Slovakia's Dominik Hrbaty, displayed the confidence that comes with being ranked as high as No 5 in the world. Rusedski also meets a familiar opponent in his next match, the Swiss Marc Rosset, whom he has beaten twice this year, the second occasion in the final in Antwerp.

Shortly after Henman's victory against Moya in Australia, his progress was interrupted by elbow surgery. Bearing that in mind, the British No 2's current erratic form can be taken as worrying, though not necessarily a cause for deep concern.

Henman's only previous meeting with Grant Stafford, the South African he defeated 6-4, 6-2 yesterday, was in the quarter-finals of the Nottingham Open the week before Wimbledon last June. Henman won that one in a third set tie-break. A consoling thought as Henman strives for consistency is that he has few ranking points to defend between Florida and Nottingham, and he has come through a difficult period still ranked No 20 in the world.

A decent run here would raise Britain's spirits for the Davis Cup tie against Ukraine at Newcastle following this tournament, a contest that could leave Henman and Rusedski just one match from lifting the nation back into the 16-strong World Group.

Five opening-round defeats have punctuated Henman's season, the latest coming the other week against against Zimbabwe's Wayne Black at Indian Wells, California. Henman hardly made the best start here in Florida, losing the first two games as Stafford began to wind up the power and accuracy of his returns.

The wind bent the branches of the palm trees close to Court No 3 on an afternoon when serving tennis balls was not the easiest pastime. Once Henman had broken back in the fifth game, however, the match began to turn his way. He saved a break point in the closing game of the opening set, and then immediately cracked Stafford at the start of the second set, cruising to a 3-0 lead.

Henman then suffered an alarming lapse of concentration in the next game, losing his serve to love. He atoned by breaking back for 1-4, setting himself up for a much-needed win. A fly-past of 11 pelicans at this point was merely coincidental.

"Mentally I was more concentrated than for a very long time," Henman said. "I was very determined to win, and it wasn't easy in the beginning. I was very nervous. More nervous than I can remember being for a long time. If I was playing well, I would take that as a good one to get out of the way. In this instance, I'm extremely pleased."

An iguana visited the court during the concluding stages of Rusedski's 6-3, 6-1 win against Hrbaty and scurried to the comparative safety of Court No 2 after spotting that the British No 1 was about to serve.

Two double faults put Rusedski in trouble in the fifth game of the opening set. He rescued the situation with a volley and an ace and proceeded to put Hrbaty under threat, breaking for 5-3 and serving out the set after 29 minutes. Hrbaty, while producing some impressive strokes, was unable to extend the contest, Rusedski taking nine of the last 10 games.

"I think I have been consistent all year," Rusedski said. "Even the matches I have lost have been relatively close. The outdoor season is going well."

Andre Agassi has a similar positive attitude, having raised his ranking from No 141 to No 31. Yesterday, after defeating the young Frenchman Nicolas Escude, 6-2, 6-3, the Las Vegan spoke of his confidence of dealing with windy conditions. "I have always considered myself a good wind player," he said. "I have the ability to hit flat through the winds or to play with spin. That makes a difference, too." A few good results make the most difference - whatever the season.