Coria succeeds although game plan goes awry

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The Independent Online

American tennis players have a word they use almost ad nauseam. It is "execute", and they use it not to imply that they will cut their opponents' heads off, but in the sense of carrying out their game plan.

American tennis players have a word they use almost ad nauseam. It is "execute", and they use it not to imply that they will cut their opponents' heads off, but in the sense of carrying out their game plan.

There was nothing wrong with Tim Henman's game plan against Guillermo Coria - it worked a dream for a set and a half. What failed him was his serve, his forehand and his volleys. In short, from 6-3, 4-2, Henman failed to execute.

For a match billed as a classic attacker against baseliner clash in the mould of Borg v McEnroe, Evert v Navratilova, Sampras v Agassi and others, Henman surprised Coria with the shock tactic of not rushing to the net at every opportunity.

Asked after his quarter-final win against Juan Ignacio Chela whether Argentinians fear a player storming to the net, Henman replied: "I think these days no one's really comfortable facing someone rushing in."

Armed with that knowledge, Coria will have based his game plan around passing and lobbing the Briton. Hence his confusion at seeing his opponent spending much more time on the baseline in the first set than anyone expected. It took Henman until the fifth game to really rush in after his serve, and it was not until the first point of the second set that he chipped and charged on a return of serve.

The strategy gave Coria, a man willing to run all day, no rhythm. As the first set wore on, Henman took late decisions to come to the net, happy to go for risks on his groundstrokes, and if they opened up the court he ghosted in to play some relatively easy volleys.

Though Coria is reported to be a calmer man since he got married late last year, Henman's tactics had the Argentinian so shaken that the spectre of his Roland Garros semi-final from last year, where he was nearly defaulted for throwing his racket at a ball girl, re-appeared. As Henman broke for 5-3, Coria smashed his racket and earned a warning.

Further evidence that Henman had undermined Coria's psychological equilibrium came when the Argentinian missed an easy forehand in the third game of the second set, netted a routine drive volley in the same game and queried a line call a good 20 seconds after Henman's shot had beaten him.

But for the brilliance of the strategy to deliver a victory, Henman had to keep up his level of play. His forehand and the chipped backhand were working a treat, and midway through the second set he dropshotted Coria off a return of serve, a rarely seen shot these days. Yet his first serve was worryingly inconsistent and his volleys were adequate.

So why from 4-2 in the second set did Coria win 13 games on the run? Simple - Henman failed to execute.

Though the turning point looked like the seventh game of the second set, the ninth - with the score at 4-4 - was more crucial. Having just broken back, Coria played a poor game and was lucky that Henman missed three forehands. Had Henman broken, Coria's mental fragility could have been exposed again. As it was, Henman's forehand proved fragile, his serve didn't improve and his volleys disintegrated.

The pent-up clay court brilliance of Coria was suddenly unleashed, and while Henman recovered in the fourth set - having wisely stuck to his tactics of variation - he had let the genie out of the bottle, and there was no putting him back.

Despite the defeat, Henman's five victories here and his first set-and-a-half against Coria will have signalled to the tennis fraternity that old-fashioned slicing and net-rushing - when judiciously used - can reap rewards on clay. Henman has avoided the trap into which Pete Sampras fell in Paris in the 1990s and Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon in the 1980s, that of trying to develop a clay court/grass court game.

He has played his own game, but adapted his strengths, his slices and volleys, to the slowness and low bounce of the surface. The main beneficiary could be the Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, who plays a similar style to Henman but has yet to look totally comfortable on clay, despite winning two Masters Series titles.

If only Henman had executed for three sets yesterday, it might have been Coria who lost his head.