Tennis: Wimbledon: Henman rises to special occasion

WIMBLEDON '97: British seed makes light of rain interruption to mark opening of new No 1 court with victory; YESTERDAY AT WIMBLEDON; Convincing victory for Henman as new No 1 court opens; Richardson reaches second round with swift victory over Spaniard;
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The Independent Online
The tall left-hander in the bandana did not serve with anything like the velocity of Greg Rusedski, but he had arrived from Canada and was threatening Tim Henman's space.

The British No 1 had not encountered Daniel Nestor before, and the 24- year-old from Ontario, ranked No 105 in the world, was keen to seize a slice of history as the first winner on the new No 1 Court.

Henman, the first Briton to be seeded for the men's singles since Buster Mottram in 1982, had to contend with the emotion of the occasion, the expectation of the nation, and the shots of an eager opponent. He dealt with the situation, winning 7-6, 6-1, 6-4.

A year earlier, you may recall, Henman had stepped out on the Centre Court against a newly crowned French Open champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and had taken a two sets to love lead, only to be hauled back and almost passed. The Russian had two match points at 5-3 in the fifth set. Henman saved them with aces and went on to win, 7-6, 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5.

On that occasion, Henman was cast in the role of a British hopeful doing himself, and the home supporters, proud. Yesterday, he was being relied upon to set a tone of optimism following a parade of international champions at the opening ceremony.

The early signs suggested that Henman still remained jammed in the stop- go mode that had marked his recent performances. He began brightly enough, passing Nestor down the line with a backhand to break for 2-1. But no sooner had the spectators settled back, happy at the prospect of enjoying a home success than Henman's serve let him down and Nestor levelled at 2-2.

Although both players were taken to deuce, serve prevailed until the tie-break brought the match to life. Henman gained the initiative at 5- 4, with two serves to come, only to be passed on the backhand before delivering a service winner to create the first set point, but with his opponent to serve.

Nestor held, then hit a winning serve for his first set point. Henman aced it away. The pattern of chances materialising and evaporating continued until the Briton saved a third set point with his eighth ace and put Nestor under pressure for a fourth time with a service winner.

On this occasion, Henman was primed to attack after Nestor hit a first serve long, returning the second serve down the line with a forehand that clipped the net cord on the way to deciding the shoot-out, 13-11.

Henman, a set to the good after 49 minutes, had taken a 2-0 lead in the second set before Nestor rid himself of the disappointment of losing the tie-break. Henman was then rather fortunate to hold for 3-0, having to save two break points after leading 40-0. Once Henman had broken for 5- 1 and finished the set with a pair of aces, however, only the rain threatened to delay his advance to the second round.

The clouds broke during the second game of the third set, with Nestor leading 1-0 and Henman serving at 15-0. The players were off the court for an hour and 15 minutes, Henman returning in determined mood. He held, broke for 2-1 and was pleased to successfully have completed phase one of his latest campaign.

Asked what it had been like playing the first match in the new arena, Henman said, "It was obviously a great honour, but it did feel very much like Centre Court, actually. The court was very hard. I thought it was going to be a little bit softer, but it played just like every other court, with no bad bounces.

"I think you can notice that it is fractionally smaller [than Centre Court], but there's still a great atmosphere out there. There was a lot of support for me. Being British, and having had a good run last year, makes it all the more exciting to come back. I think I responded, and I think the crowd responded."

They did, although at times there was a good deal of shuffling in those brand new seats.

"I think I've learnt from the way that I've been playing recently," Henman said. "I think in those times when I was behind in the tie-break today, I paid a little added attention to each serve. I think there was a period when I was making a lot of big first serves to get myself out of trouble.

"I thought to myself, 'Let's try to make life easier in the next couple of sets. I've given myself an opportunity. Let's go up a few gears'. And I think I definitely did that.

"I still have a lot of confidence in my own ability. During those periods when I've struggled a little bit, I've always maintained my belief, faced up to things and continued to work hard, and definitely my form has improved."

Over on the Centre Court, meanwhile, Richard Krajicek was also being viewed in a different context after his exploits last year. The Dutchman was in the throes of opening the defence his title.

Krajicek was expected to overpower Marcello Craca, a 22-year-old from Germany, ranked No 134. Krajicek, in common with Henman, fought his way through a tie-break and then asserted himself to win, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Did he see any comparison between a glorious final Sunday and a wet first- round Monday?

"Both days had a special tension," Krajicek said, "and both days I was pretty happy that I finally won."

Having shaken the seeding committee 12 months ago, was it possible that he might now make some London bookies pay for offering him as 7-1 chance?

"Yes I feel pretty good," Krajicek said. "I think I have a good chance. I feel confident. After last year I know I can win a Grand Slam, and for sure I know I can win it on grass. Economically speaking, I think it was smarter to do it last year, when I was 50-1, but 7-1..."

More Wimbledon reports, pages 30 and 31

Results and Order of play, page 30

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