Detour leads Henman into war of attrition

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The Independent Online

Another season, and another bucketful of pressure on Tim Henman to become the first British man to win a Grand Slam tournament since Fred Perry in 1936. This year the burden of expectation is heavier than ever, thanks to Henman's decision to abandon Davis Cup duties in order to concentrate on that elusive goal.

Another season, and another bucketful of pressure on Tim Henman to become the first British man to win a Grand Slam tournament since Fred Perry in 1936. This year the burden of expectation is heavier than ever, thanks to Henman's decision to abandon Davis Cup duties in order to concentrate on that elusive goal.

Like a trusty family saloon, the British No 1 is nearing the end of his useful life, and he is determined to prove he can mix it with the Formula One crowd before his engine gives out. The Australian Open is his least successful Grand Slam, but yesterday he made a valiant start, driving past Cyril Saulnier after a Henmanesque detour.

The No 7 seed suffered a lapse of concentration mid-match, handing the vastly inferior Frenchman a set after powering through the first two in less than an hour. He then subjected the crowd on Margaret Court Arena to a needlessly drawn-out fourth set before wrapping up a 6-1, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory.

Henman explained the change in pace by saying that after playing "two sets of pretty flawless tennis", he let his aggression level slip and allowed Saulnier to "play his game a little bit". "I was just trying too hard," he said.

It was an ill-tempered encounter that began as a walkover and became a war of attrition. Saulnier argued with line judges and expostulated in French as Henman broke his serve twice in the first set and twice in the second. The British fans yelled for "Tiger Tim", and it seemed the match would be over in a blink of a wild cat's eye.

Then the 30-year-old Briton did what Henman-watchers have come to expect: he lost the plot, allowing Saulnier - who led him by two sets to love in the first round of last year's French Open - back into the match. He saved two break points in the sixth game but, as he served at 4-5, the Frenchman produced one forehand winner to create two set points and another to take the set.

The fourth set was an excruciating see-saw during which Henman and Saulnier, ranked No 53, swapped breaks of serve. Finally Saulnier, serving at 3-5, gave the Briton two match points, then ended the agony by dumping a forehand into the net.

Henman said he had thrived on the football match-style atmosphere and had even given his noisy fans "a rare wave". He added: "But it's a fine line. I've got a job to do out there. There were guys shouting 'do it for Chiswick'. I don't live in Chiswick." The British No 2, Greg Rusedski, also won in four sets yesterday, but the tennis could not have been more different. It was graceful and fluid, and Rusedski - on sizzling form - deserved his 2-6, 6-4, 6-0, 7-6 victory over Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden.

After giving Bjorkman the first set, Rusedski broke serve in the first game of the second and kept up the momentum to equalise the score. He then won the next six games to go two sets to one up. "Greg, you rock!" shouted one British fan.

The pair - described as "fellow thirtysomethings" in the tournament briefing notes - traded a break each in the fourth set, delivering it to a tie-break, which Rusedski won 9-7.

Tomorrow he faces the formidable obstacle of Andy Roddick. The American No 2 seed has a 3-1 lead in their previous encounters, with Rusedski beating him at Wimbledon in 2002. The Briton was pleased with yesterday's outcome, achieved despite Bjorkman's vocal support. "There are two things you don't want to play over here - a Swede and an Australian," he said, referring to the hordes of fans who follow Swedish players Down Under.

At 31, Rusedski, too, is approaching his sell-by-date, and says he wants to "enjoy my last few years of tennis". Currently without a coach, he intends to find one when he gets home. "I'm still very committed to my tennis," he said. "I want to be the best I possibly can." He ended last year as world No 49 after plummeting to No 168 in 2003 thanks to injuries.

He, too, is considering his Davis Cup future, although he appeared equivocal when asked about the new generation of young British players. While the likes of Alex Bogdanovic were undoubtedly talented, he said, he questioned whether they had the hunger to win.

The rest of the first round went according to script, with top seeds such as Lleyton Hewitt, Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian progressing without a hitch. In the women's event, Lyndsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Anastasia Myskina all won in straight sets.

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