Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Henman takes the hard road

Wimbledon 99: Little-known Frenchman gives Britain's No 1 a scare while Rusedski brushes aside dangerous rival
Click to follow
AN ENCOURAGING opening day for Britain ended with the Big Two, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, chorusing "one down, six to go", although the course their respective matches took ran contrary to expectations.

It was anticipated that Rusedski would be stretched by Jason Stoltenberg, a semi-finalist in 1996, but the No 9 seed swept past the Australian, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, after only 80 minutes on the Centre Court.

Rusedski was supposed to be having trouble with his mighty serve towards the end of his pre-Wimbledon preparation in Nottingham last week. He described it as "a technical glitch". Stoltenberg must have been hoping that the problem would extend at least to to day one at the All England Club, but Rusedski was in the groove. Six aces - usually a sign of poverty - were the least of it as Stoltenberg was unable to make much of his returns when he did get racket to ball.

"I had two days of practice," Rusedski said. "That helped me. I just let things happen. I stayed relaxed and focused, and that freed me up to play to my potential."

Earlier, on Court No 1, Henman appeared to be making short work of Arnaud Di Pasquale, a 20-year-old Frenchman, ranked No 54 in the world, who prefers playing on slow clay. Henman eventually muddled through, 6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 7-6, after two hours and 21 minutes.

Rusedski's second-round opponent will be a fellow Briton from the bargain basement: Arvind Parmar, a 21-year-old qualifier, ranked No 455 in the world. Parmar defeated Spain's Albert Costa, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3, to present the nation with a win-win situation.

The way Rusedski performed yesterday suggested that Parmar may be in for a torrid afternoon against the world's fastest server, but he seems to be the type to make the most of an unexpected opportunity. After all, the only Briton who was supposed to be on Rusedski's agenda was Henman.

The British No 1 will have to avoid lapses similar to yesterday's if he is to advance through the fortnight. Henman was looking splendid, two sets and a break to the good after only 70 minutes, having discouraged the Frenchman by winning seven games consecutively from 5-4 in the opening set.

There was the merest suggestion of a stutter when Henman had to save a break point before holding for 3-1 in the third set. Di Pasquale passed him with a cross-court backhand to 30-40, Henman escaping with a forehand drive.

The conditions had become distinctly cool and breezy as Di Pasquale held for 2-3 and then lobbed Henman to put the Briton 0-30 down on his serve in their sixth game. Henman pulled a point back with a smash, but immediately double-faulted twice to beckon Di Pasquale into the match. "On both second serves they were horrendous ball tosses," Henman said.

"I'm not quite sure why I hit them, because I was perfectly entitled to let them bounce. One was about a foot behind me and on the other one, the ball toss barely got out of my hands. I don't think that's [a question of] concentration. That's just lack of realisation on the ball toss. But once he got a break back, his confidence went up."

It certainly did. Di Pasquale broke a second time, for 5-3, Henman double- faulting again, to 30-40, and then hitting a forehand long. The Frenchman survived a crisis when serving for the set, slipping to 30-40 after netting a backhand when Henman returned a second serve, but salvaging the situation with a service winner. Henman hit a backhand second service return wide on Di Pasquale's first set point. "It went pear-shaped pretty quickly, didn't it?" Henman said.

"I think I like putting myself, the crowd, my coach and my family through pain when it comes to Wimbledon. I thought I was playing great tennis early on, but I played badly for five or 10 minutes at the end of the second set. I got through, and that's the important thing."

The crowd's anxiety was palpable. When Di Pasquale double-faulted to 15-40 in the fourth game of the fourth set, and was broken for 1-3 by a Henman backhand pass, a spectator shouted, "Welcome back, Tim!" He spoke too soon, for that was the start of four consecutive breaks.

Henman lost the advantage, recovered it for 4-2. Then, surprise, surprise, he double-faulted to 0-40 and hit a low backhand volley over the baseline from a Di Pasquale return. The Frenchman held for 4-4, and the set moved uneasily towards a tie-break.

From the opening game of the match, the court was invaded from time to time by a creature heavy of body and short on legs, rather like the average reporter. Sometimes pigeons are trained to carry messages, but this one was ignored in spite of its best efforts. It was an all-court pigeon, too, good on both wings, and enjoyed flitting from one side of the net to the other, from service box to service box.

A glare from Henman was usually enough to send the bird flying to the roof, and its returns did not appear to bother him much during the early part of the match. But, as he observed afterwards: "Pigeons like to get in on the act. It was getting a bit too close for comfort at certain times."

That was certainly true when the pigeon (presuming that it was one and the same) arrived as Henman was about to deliver a second serve at 5-5, 15-30, in the fourth set. He was allowed a let and managed to work his way out of trouble after being taken to deuce.

"I was begging for two serves," he said. "I thought [the pigeon] had stifled my motion on the second serve.Unfortunately, the umpire didn't. But then I hit a good second serve and a really good volley. That was at an important stage."

When the tie-break arrived, Henman had the stronger resolve. Di Pasquale won only one point, for 1-2, and double-faulted for 1-6. Henman put the contest beyond doubt with a backhand volley for 7-1.

"Once you get yourself into an awkward position, you can make life very difficult," he said. "I would have preferred to have got through in straight sets, let's not hide away from that fact. But I feel like I've got involved in the tournament. That was the positive."

Richard Williams, page 28; More reports, results, page 29