Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Back to the drawing board for Henman

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The Independent Online
HAVING PUT his rackets away, not to be used in tournament play until the end of the month, when he is due to commence his lead-up to the United States Open at the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles, Tim Henman is turning his mind to rest, recreational golf and analysis of his tennis game in private with his coach, David Felgate.

"At this moment, I'm not going to give a lot away to you guys," Henman told journalists during the aftermath of his defeat by Pete Sampras, 3- 6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, in Saturday's men's singles semi-finals. "In the short- term, that's for me to dwell on and think about and assess, and that's why I feel like I'm going to go away and improve and become a better player."

This was the British No 1's response to a suggestion that he did not seem to be as choked, emotionally, as he did last year, when he also lost to Sampras in four sets in the semi-finals. The observation tended to overlook Henman's demeanour on Saturday as he walked off the Centre Court, head down in disappointment.

Some viewers may have been upset that Henman did not wave to the spectators before taking his leave, or even run towards them, applauding in the manner of footballers who have not disgraced themselves on an away ground. The point is, Henman was not away from home. Wimbledon is where he belongs, and he had nothing to celebrate.

The opening set was deceptive, raising optimism that the afternoon would end with Britain hailing its first men's singles finalist since Bunny Austin in 1938, and that yesterday might see the end to a 63-year wait for Fred Perry's successor.

With Sampras still seeking his serve, which deserted him during his brief skirmish with the injured Mark Philippoussis in the quarter-finals, Henman capitalised on three double-faults by cracking a superb backhand cross- court return to the American's feet for a 2-0 lead.

Two Henman double-faults and a Sampras forehand later, Henman had dropped serve, but the Briton excelled himself by recovering the break, cracking the Sampras serve a second time, for 3-1. Henman accomplished this with only a slight degree of fortune, his return of a second serve for 0-30 appearing to land deep in the court by accident rather than design.

Henman was unable to break Sampras again. To be fair, Sampras was beginning to look more like the player who had won the title five times. The American served so confidently in the second set that he whisked away Henman's one opportunity to break, in the third game, with a second delivery of 132mph.

Although Henman saved a break point in the second game and another in the eighth, his resistance waned in the concluding game to the extent of double-faulting on his only game point and double-faulting again when Sampras reached set point for the third time. Somehow, the bleep from Cyclops, the electronic service-line machine, sounded more ominous than usual.

If the crowd seemed subdued during the third set, it was because there was little to excite them apart from the excellence of Sampras's play, which was almost a re-run of some of his greatest Wimbledon hits.

Henman managed to rouse his supporters in the fourth set, after saving a break point in the opening game. Sampras suddenly became a mixture of virtuosity and vulnerability, alternately executing passes with the grace of a matador and missing serves in a manner that would have brought hope to park players.

There were a couple of moments when Henman glimpsed the possibility of a fifth set. But Sampras coolly put away a second serve in the sixth game, and served well enough at 30-40 in the eighth game to offer Henman little scope but to net a backhand return. Henman managed to steer clear of double- faulting again until 4-4, when his 10th gift to Sampras arrived at 0-15, and Henman was broken to love.

All that remained was the talking. "I've got a lot of years in front of me," Henman said, "On a grass court, I think I go into most matches as favourite, but Pete, on grass, is the one person that everybody has to beat. If I can continue to improve, I'm certain one day I can be champion here."

Sampras encouraged that thought. "The match was just a couple of situations here and there," he said. "I've got a lot of respect for Tim's game. He can do a lot of different things. It's just a matter of time before he breaks through and wins here. To win any Grand Slam, everything needs to fall in place, and Tim is going to be in contention for the next eight to 10 years."

Henman smiled coyly. "At this rate, in 2001 I think I will be a clear favourite," he said.


Sampras Henman

First serve 52% 48%

Aces 13 2

Double faults 10 10

Unforced errors 91 64

First serves won 80% 72%

Second serves won 54% 49%

Winners 59 22

Break-points won 36% 29%

Total points won 133 118

Fastest serve 134mph 131mph

Av first serve 121mph 119mph

Av second serve 104mph 97mph