Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Henman hopes normal service can be resumed

Wimbledon 99: Weather closes in with the British No 1 well placed to make progress to the quarter-finals
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The Independent Online
WHEN TIM HENMAN returns to the Centre Court today, weather permitting, to resume his rain-suspended fourth-round match against Jim Courier with the score standing at 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 4-3, he will face the most exacting test of his tennis-playing life. He is leading the match, but he is not playing well. He is expected to win, but he is faced with an opponent famous for never knowing when he is beaten. And he will need to make one crucial decision.

Does he continue the painful search for his mislaid first serve, knowing that it holds the key to his ability to play the sort of high-quality tennis needed to make further progress towards the title? Or does he take this tense but tactically incoherent match on its own terms and opt to dog it out against Courier, leaving the finer considerations for a finer occasion?

Courier, who is leading 30-15 on his own serve in the eighth game of the fourth set, probably believes that the No 6 seed is lucky still to be in the match. Two line calls, one of which gave his opponent the third set, upset the unseeded American, who is always liable to turn such grievances into extra motivation. In theory, the match could be over within minutes. But for Courier, who was put on an intravenous drip after suffering from dehydration in his five-set match against Sjeng Schalken in the third round, the overnight break offers an unexpected extra chance to recharge his batteries before the final battle.

Perhaps yesterday's crowd had read Courier's words in an interview at the weekend. "It's instinctive for me to play well when everything's against me," he said. "It forces me to go deeper inside and focus more." When the two players arrived on the Centre Court, the place was barely half- full, the absentees presumably detained by the usual imperatives of corporate hospitality. No chance of a cauldron of Henmania, to say the least.

As it happened, a light drizzle during the knock-up forced a 50-minute postponement of the start. When the players returned, the attendance was more in keeping with the occasion. But even then the crowd seemed subdued, as if too fervent a display of their loyalty might damage their favourite's chances - either by exerting an intolerable pressure on him or by provoking his opponent to the sort of deeds witnessed in the Davis Cup tie at Birmingham a few weeks ago, when Courier beat both Henman and Greg Rusedski in five- set matches that demonstrated the apparently inexhaustible reserves of grit available to a man who won four Grand Slam tournaments early in this decade but is currently ranked 61st in the world.

Henman's performance in the first set was dictated entirely by his inability to get his first service to fire efficiently, a problem that has dogged him throughout the tournament and which may have been exacerbated yesterday by the breezes gusting under the oval roof of the Centre Court. He began with a double- fault on the first point of the first game, losing his serve with a weak forehand return. Courier, showing no such nerves, produced two aces in his first service game. Ten minutes later, with the American serving at 2-1 and 0-30, the players were off and the covers were on again.

When they returned, an hour and 10 minutes later, Henman quickly completed the break-back and then held his own serve to love. But Courier was not about to concede the initiative, and broke for the second time in the seventh game.

Henman opened the second set by briefly finding his serve-and-volley touch. But his game was still plagued by inconsistency, as evidenced by two consecutive double-faults in the third game of the set. Not until the 16th game of the match did he give the first real indication of his top 10 status, when he got himself to 0-40 on Courier's serve with a brilliant backhand down the line and a superb high angled backhand volley. But all three set points were allowed to dribble away.

In the 12th game, with Courier serving to stay in the set at 5-6, Henman's body language suddenly assumed more positive outlines. He floated a backhand return that Courier netted for 0-15, he moved around the baseline to Courier's second serve and contrived a cunning return for 0-30, and at 30-40 he fired in a series of groundstrokes of such teasing length that he was able to come in and take the set with a finely angled volley.

After that concentrated display of dominance, Henman began the third set with another double-fault but recovered to hold his serve with a marvellous scrambled recovery at deuce. Once more, though, he was failing to find accuracy with his first serve, and in the seventh game Courier ventured to the net for the first time, on his opponent's serve. Henman took the cue in the next game, trying to follow up a return of serve by approaching the net. Courier's delight as he passed the stranded Englishman represented his first display of emotion in the match, and he repeated it in his next service game when Henman again tried to establish a presence at the net.

Serving once again at 5-6 down, Courier found himself confronted by a Henman who had once more convinced himself that boldness would win the day. Three times Henman followed his returns into the net, and each time he prevailed with a deep and carefully guided volley. At 15-40, Courier tried to change the rhythm and came to the net to steer Henman's return wide of the Englishman's forehand - and wide of the sideline, according to the line judge. Courier disagreed, and placed a spare ball on the line to demonstrate to the chair umpire exactly where he believed the ball had landed, touching the chalk. But Henman had taken the set 7-5 and was now leading the match.

Courier walked back to receive Henman's serve for the first game of the fourth set still muttering and grumbling, but he sprang back into action in the second game, producing a pair of stop-volleys that helped him hold his serve to love. Encouraged by his success, he charged forward again in Henman's next service game, only to find himself beaten by his opponent's finest stroke of the match so far, a backhand topspin lob which landed a foot inside the line.

His own mis-hit lob and a distracting flutter of pigeons under the eaves of the Centre Court brought gestures of impatience from Courier that were perhaps illustrations not so much of his own disquiet as of his desire to disrupt the rhythms of the game, such as they were. For all the weakness of Henman's serve, Courier was going to need something more than just his own powerful delivery and his repertoire of baseliner's groundstrokes if he was going to get back into the match. Yet when, after two hours and 46 minutes of play, the umbrellas went up and the shutters came down, only the most devoted of Henman's admirers would have felt inclined to bet against the American's chances of spoiling their fun.