The British No 1 stumbled against Gambill for the second time in six months yesterday at the Eurocard Open, losing in three sets, just as he did in Tokyo in April.
Yesterday's defeat cost Henman valuable points in the race for one of the two remaining places in the eight-man field for the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover on 24 November, and denied him another crack at Sampras in today's quarter-finals.
Greg Rusedski, an outsider for Hanover at No 13, did himself and Sampras a huge favour by defeating Australia's Pat Rafter for the second time in a fortnight. Rafter, ranked No 3, is one of the chief threats to Sampras's chances of finishing the year at No 1 for a record sixth consecutive time.
Showing the composure lacking in his second-round win against Jason Stoltenberg, Rusedski prevailed, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4. The British No 2 returned serve superbly and was resilient even when 0-40 down on his own serve to earn a quarter-final match against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman tonight.
Rusedski, who allowed himself to become upset by the umpire's overrule during Wednesday's match against Stoltenberg on Court One, was in a brighter frame of mind after discussing his attitude with his coach, Sven Groenveld.
"Sven told me to take my time and play more professionally and not let situations get me uptight," Rusedski said. "I think my tennis is better than before my injury [he damaged his left ankle at Queen's Club the week before Wimbledon]; it's just a case of getting the mental stability."
Rafter, who also lost to Rusedski in the quarter-finals in Vienna, said he would return to his base in Bermuda after next week's tournament in Paris. But would he return for Hanover? "I'm drained mentally," he said. "I'll have to review things, but there's a good chance I'll play."
Gambill, ranked No 50, only broke Henman's serve once. That was in the third game of the opening set, and Henman immediately broke back. But the Briton let himself down by double-faulting in two tie breaks to lose the third round match 7-6, 1-6, 7-6 after two hours and 14 minutes.
Two of Henman's rivals for Hanover, Karol Kucera and Petr Korda, lost ground in the second round, but Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, may be about to make a late run. The Dutchman served brilliantly yesterday to defeat Andre Agassi, 6-3, 6-4 (Agassi has already secured one of the places).
Krajicek, who today plays Goran Ivanisevic, another challenger for Hanover, postponed a knee operation to compete during the indoor season. Krajicek rates his prospects of qualifying for Hanover as "basically minimal", emphasising that "the difference between me and Tim is only two spots, but it is like 400 points, or even more".
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, another of the men who could deprive Henman of his place in Hanover, also advanced yesterday. The former French Open champion overcame the American, Todd Martin, winning 6-4, 7-5.
Henman remains optimistic about accumulating the 250 points that would guarantee his place in the top eight when the counting stops on 16 November. "I am still very happy with the situation I am in," he said. "The winner this week will probably pick up 500 points, the winner in Paris next week will get 500 points, and the winner in Moscow and Stockholm will probably get 300 points. So there are still plenty of points to play for, and plenty of points for me to pick up."
Gambill did the picking up yesterday, when Henman, the world No 9, became his first top-10 conquest. The 21-year-old from Spokane had a small but vocal group of supporters, including his father and coach, Chuck, and his mother, Diane, among some 200 spectators on Court Two.
Henman said he was not affected by playing in a small hall after starting the tournament on the Centre Court - "if anything, it is probably easier to see on that court, because on the Centre Court the ball comes out of the people" - but a smashed racket at the end of the match was evidence of his frustration with his performance.
Solving a number of his problems with aces - 18 in all, sometimes in clusters - Henman was frequently put under pressure on his second serve. A double fault on the second point of the tie-break in the first set hastened a decline to 0-4, and a second double-fault to 1-5, was incentive enough for Gambill to take the shoot-out, 7-2.
Henman recovered to win the second set in only 28 minutes, playing some impressive tennis. But after taking Gambill to deuce in the third and ninth games of the final set, Henman was again under pressure. He saved three break points to avoid a 3-5 deficit, but came adrift again in the tie-break, losing the first four points and double-faulting for the eighth time for 1-5. Gambill could not be caught from there, winning 7-5 with a service winner on his second match point.Reuse content