Tennis: Winbledon '99 - Henman on revenge mission

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The Independent Online
AS A RESIDENT of Orlando, Florida, Jim Courier lives close enough to Disneyworld to take wide-eyed congregations for granted, whether the queues are for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

The Wimbledon fantasy of a British men's singles champion is four matches away from reality, the snag being that the 14 other players of various nationalities in today's fourth round matches have dreams of their own, and some have the wherewithal to make them come true.

Courier, who plays Henman, the No 6 seed, in the opening contest on Centre Court, may not be one of them. Aged 28, and ranked No 61, the twice Australian Open and French Open champion and former world No 1, may agree with a veteran joke, that the older he gets, the better he used to be.

Dehydrated after staggering past his Dutch opponent, Sjeng Schalken, in the third round on Friday, 13-11 in the fifth set, Courier was taken to hospital, complaining about the All England Club's "antiquated" medical services and "brick wall of conservatism".

Being so cheerful is what keeps Courier going. "He's always fighting," Schalken said. "He had two incredible shots at the right time, otherwise he was exit. It was a great match, great for tennis. That's why the queue is so long here."

Neither Henman nor Rusedski need reminding about Courier's fortitude after his resounding five-set victories against each of them in turn in the Davis Cup at Easter, when the United States won, 3-2. For the Alamo, read Birmingham.

Courier seems to revel in a big-match atmosphere, irrespective of crowd favouritism. "I'm used to it," he says. "I've always heard that I shouldn't do this, or I couldn't do that. I'm used to those kind of naysayers, so maybe that's why I like to respond to that."

The Davis Cup match, played on medium-pace concrete at the National Indoor Arena, was the most memorable British tennis event outside Wimbledon. "It's a different surface," Courier says, "although the speed is fairly similar. The court in Birmingham was quick, and the court here is very quick as well. The footing is not as sure here. But you never know until you step on the court what you're going to get."

Courier, whose attacking groundstrokes are better suited to slow clay courts and the even bounce afforded by concrete, has described Wimbledon as "a crap shoot", because the variables of playing on grass tend to make the process of constructing points about as reliable as rolling dice.

At least he is pleased to be returning to Centre Court, where he defeated Carlos Moya, the No 12 seed, in five sets in the second round, after playing Schalken on Court No 3. "It can't hurt to have the ball bounce where you expect it to," Courier says. "That court [No 3] is pretty uneven. The Centre Court is a lot better. It's a lot flatter, and it should be nice. I had fun out there the other day, and it's going to be a nice occasion. There's going to be a nice crowd there."

Perhaps the finest compliment to Henman's play on the lawns is that Courier is likely to find the British No 1's serve-volley style vaguely reminiscent of Pete Sampras's when the two Americans met in the final on 4 July 1993. Sampras won in four sets to secure the first of his five Wimbledon titles.

Henman, who took a set off Sampras in the semi-finals last year, may strike a resemblance to the world No 1, but does he have what it takes to become a Grand Slam champion? "The million dollar question," Courier says. "I didn't know if I was mentally strong enough to get through until I did it the first time. You just have to put yourself in that position, and eventually he'll find out."

Courier's name, like Sampras's, is on the list of players Henman has yet to overcome. The 24-year-old from Oxfordshire says he "desperately" wants to win this afternoon. "The two matches we've had were very close, and hopefully it will go my way this time," Henman says. "Winning breeds confidence, and my record on grass this year has been good."

Those wondering about Rusedski's whereabouts should cock an ear for sonic booms from Court No 1, where the British No 2 is due to round off the day's proceedings against Australia's Mark Philippoussis. Prudently, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf will be allowed to play their respective matches before Rusedski and Philippoussis make potholes.

If the shortness of the points becomes monotonous, it is worth keeping an eye on the speed gun, while it lasts. Rusedski's fastest serve is 149 mph, recorded last year in Indian Wells, California. Philippoussis's personal best is 142.3.

Asked about their respective serving techniques, Rusedski says: "I'm left-handed, he's right-handed, that's the first obvious one. The second one is that I probably use a little more slice, he hits it a little more flat. He takes a little bit more risk, especially on his second serve some days. He's got a tremendous action, one of the best serves in the world. I don't think mine is too bad, either."

Amid such thudding and scudding, the winner will be the man who manages to return the serves, which sounds obvious but is not easy to achieve without radar. Volleying may be an option, but rallies are not in the script. Should the players find time to improvise, the one with the more reliable groundstokes is likely to prevail.

Although Rusedski has won both his previous matches against Philippoussis, in 1997, the statistic may be unreliable, even though the first meeting was in the first round at Wimbledon, where Rusedski managed to make the only break of serve in succeeding, 7-6, 7-6, 6-3.

Just as the Wimbledon fortnight tends to be a tale of two tournaments - the first week and the second week, with performances affected by levels of confidence, or a change in the weather - so past victories may prove to have little bearing on the current situation.

Rusedski's game has matured with experience over the past two years, and so, crucially, has the 22-year-old Philippoussis's. In one respect, the experience was similar: Rusedski advanced to his first Grand Slam final, at the 1997 United States Open, and was defeated by Australia's Pat Rafter in the final; Philippoussis reached the US Open final last year, and he, too, lost to Rafter.

Prior to that, Philippoussis managed to lift his head after a frustrating lead-up to Wimbledon, advancing to the quarter-finals before losing to Sampras. "I went through a rough patch last year and was pretty negative," Philippoussis says. "But I trained really hard before Wimbledon, and I've also trained really hard before Wimbledon this time.

"Obviously, you'd like to do well at Queen's, but I didn't have a great tournament there, and I wasn't very focused. Just coming into Wimbledon, it hits you. It's a Grand Slam, it's Wimbledon, and every point is different."

There is another difference. In 1997, Philippoussis, young though he was, had already impressed his powerful game on the scene and was considered the favourite to defeat Rusedski. This time, although seeded two places above Rusedski, at No 7, Philippoussis is regarded as something of an underdog. "I've not been feeling pressure," he says. "I don't think you guys will see my best tennis for another two to three years."

Rusedski and his supporters will be relieved to know that. Trusting that Philippoussis's self-assessment is correct, Rusedski should continue his progress today - even if it takes four tie-breaks and an epic fifth set - towards a much-awaited meeting with Sampras in the quarter-finals.

Henman is also fancied for a place in the last eight, at which point he may have to be wary of Cedric Pioline, the wily Frenchman who put paid to Rusedski's chances two years ago.

Manta miracle, page 5; Richard Williams, page 6


Courier leads 2-0

97 (F) Doha (concrete)

Courier 7-5 6-7 6-2

99 (1st rd) Davis Cup (concrete)

Courier 7-6 2-6 7-6 6-7 7-5


Rusedski leads 2-0

97 (1st rd) Wimbledon (grass)

Rusedski 7-6 7-6 6-3

97 (F) Basle Indoor (concrete)

Rusedski 6-3 7-6 7-6