Back injury threatens Henman's progress

Debbie Kleinman got her hands on Tim Henman's body again yesterday, with the full approval of the British No 1's wife, Lucy. The chiropractor's kneading fingers could make the difference between progress or defeat for Henman at the US Open here today.

Henman, due to mark his 30th birthday next Monday, is less concerned with his advancing years than the immediate problem of a lower back injury that threatens his prospects of gaining a place in the last 16.

He is in good hands. Kleinman, who has eased pain for those such as Ivan Lendl and Steffi Graf, has worked on Henman's back since last weekend, when he doubted if he would be fit to start the tournament. Henman believes the injury is related to spending too much time playing golf after Wimbledon.

Henman, the fifth seed, today plays Michal Tabara, a Czech qualifer, who had treatment to his lower back en route to a second round win against Mardy Fish, America's Olympic Games silver medallist, after five sets. Henman won his two previous matches against Tabara, ranked 149 in the world, but they have not met since 2001.

Before Tabara arrived at Flushing Meadows for the qualifying event, he had not competed on concrete courts since losing to Britain's Alex Bodanovic in the second round of a Challenger tournament in Sarajavo in March. The US Open is only Tabara's third Tour-level event of the year.

That would suggest Henman is favourite to reach the fourth round here for the third time in his career. Aside from the respective concerns about aching backs, however, the 25-year-old Czech has built his confidence by winning three qualifying matches and overcoming Max Mirnyi, ranked 65, and Fish, ranked 28, in the main draw.

"I'm still not 100 per cent," Henman said after defeating Jerome Golmard of France in the second round. "I didn't really feel I was able to bend and push off for certain shots. If there are low volleys, whereas before I'd be very keen to take the ball out of the air, at the moment I'll take a half volley, because I don't have to get down so low.

"Sometimes, when I've got to change direction quickly, I'm a bit stiff, but also I'm a bit afraid mentally as well. I'd like to think that I'm going to have a good practice and try and hit some of those shots to free up myself, physically and mentally."

Henman's finest performance at a Grand Slam championship outside Wimbledon was his advance to the French Open semi-finals in June, in spite of a viral infection. The malady enabled him to play without feeling undue pressure to get results. Likewise, his most impressive victory, winning the Madrid Masters last October, came when he thought he was merely winding down a season beset by injury.

"That's still something I'm trying to grasp," Henman said, "the fact that trying harder is not necessarily trying better. There are times when I've wanted to win too much. My focus has been on winning and losing, whereas I'm getting better about just having a purpose of what I'm trying to do out there in the matches.

"It is sort of highlighted when I go on the court and I'm unsure about whether I'm going to be able to finish the match or whether I'm going to start the match. All of a sudden, there's not even the slightest bit of concern about winning or losing, because I'm just thinking, 'well, am I physically fit to play?'"

"That's an interesting perspective to have. When I'm on the court in that frame of mind, I'm pretty relaxed, I'm playing well."

He added: "I still question my demeanour on the court at Wimbledon. I'm still a little bit unsure. In the early rounds, I was trying to be very relaxed. It was just a struggle. Then I'm trying to show a bit more emotion and get a bit more fired up. But that's not really the way I'm playing my best tennis. I don't know the answer to it. It's something I need to keep working at."

It was suggested that he might try letting the mood come naturally. "That's in an ideal world," Henman said. "Given the scenario and the situation at Wimbledon, that's easier said than done." Henman said he had not seen Tabara play much recently. "He's one these Czech guys who's very solid from the baseline and a good mover, not altogether dissimilar to Novak." Jiri Novak eliminated Henman in straight sets in the first round at the Olympics.

The biggest stir that the 5ft 9in Tabara has caused at a Grand Slam was here in 2001 when he spat in the direction of his opponent, Justin Gimelstob, after losing to the American in five sets. Tabara was upset because the 6ft 5in Gimelstob had called the trainer three times to treat blisters. "Unless he grows about another foot by the time I get back to the locker room," Gimelstob said, "he's in trouble."

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