Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden, who stands between Tim Henman and his first appearance in a Grand Slam quarter-final outside Wimbledon, has had more dealings recently with Tim Phillips, the All England Club chairman, than with the British No 1. Bjorkman, in his role as chairman of the ATP players' council, was involved in the compromise that resulted in the number of seeds being raised from 16 to 32.
Not that Bjorkman is your typical union representative, as anyone who has seen his amusing impersonations of the styles of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, will know. He may be John Virgo with a racket in his lighter moments, but Bjorkman is all business on the court, whether playing singles or doubles, for himself or his country (next month, remember, Sweden visit Birmingham to play Britain in the first round of the Davis Cup World Group).
Although one of the finest returners of serve in the game, Bjorkman's singles ranking – No 64 – has not matched his status as a doubles player – currently No 1. Henman, however, will know better than to underestimate him when they meet in the fourth round at the Australian Open tomorrow, having lost four of their six previous matches, including a straight sets defeat in Melbourne in 1996, their only other Grand Slam meeting.
Henman was a fledgling talent at the time, and Bjorkman, who is approaching 30, could hardly have imagined that the skinny young fellow from Oxfordshire would grow to give a more impressive impersonation of Edberg than he ever could. Such praise may seem extravagant, but there were shades of Edberg in Henman's masterful performance against Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, in the third round yesterday.
Rusedski can rarely have played so well and lost. There were moments when he displayed the determination that took him to the US Open final in 1997, defeating Bjorkman in the semi-finals in a season that saw him and the Swede achieve their highest ranking, No 4. It took a tantrum to ignite Rusedski's game yesterday – wishful thinking persuading him that a Henman volley landed long on a break point that might have saved the second set – but no matter how hard Rusedski tried and how few errors he made, Henman was able to deliver the crucial shots to win, 6-4, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3.
Rusedski's serve was trustworthy rather than terrifying, and Henman intercepted well. While Rusedski's usually suspect backhand was efficient, Henman's often dodgy forehand was impeccable. When Rusedski threatened to extend the contest, Henman held his nerve. Most impressive of all, Henman resisted his old habit of belting his serve and rushing the net, relying instead on serving consistently well and moving beautifully to convert volleys of his choosing: high or low, crisp or camouflaged.
When an element of risk was unavoidable, Henman did not hesitate, notably when delivering a second serve to the corner of the box to erase the first break point against him when leading 5-3 in the second set.
Coaching is not an exact science, as David Felgate, Henman's former mentor, would remind us from time to time. But an alternative voice can sometimes work wonders, as demonstrated by Larry Stefanki in helping Henman to minimise the glitches in his game. The pair began working together after Wimbledon last July, when Henman began to piece his confidence back together after his agonising semi-final defeat by Goran Ivanisevic. The US Open came and went with Henman and Stefanki still getting to know each other, but the relationship has flourished this year, with Henman winning all eight of his matches and adding the Adelaide title to his collection.
Roger Taylor, Britain's Davis Cup captain, made the point that Henman's success in Adelaide "cemented" his partnership with Stefanki, whose previous clients included John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, hardly the easiest three to instruct. "Larry is very experienced and hard-working and is an honest coach," Taylor said. "He is the type who will tell a player straight if he thinks something is wrong."
Henman has now reached a critical stage of the tournament, the point where, in the past, expectation has turned to anticlimax. The 27-year-old has campaigned long enough now to avoid obvious pitfalls and seems in the right frame of mind to ignore the distracting flow of comment, whether from cynics or sycophants. After winning in Adelaide, Henman took the sensible view that the victory, while boosting his confidence, was not a guarantee of success at the Australian Open. Likewise, yesterday's domestic dispute with Rusedski will count for little unless he builds upon the opportunity it has given him.
Henman, at No 6, may be the highest seed left in the men's singles, but knows there are bigger names in the top half of the draw, including Pete Sampras. For the moment, Henman must concentrate on terminating the round of a certain postman's son from Vaxjo.Reuse content