Double act puts Henman on brink of major breakthrough

Britain's refreshed No 1 celebrates first anniversary with Annacone and gives promise of more happy returns.

What Tim Henman's coach, Paul Annacone, calls "a pot of gold" is on offer in Texas this week, and just by turning up in Houston Henman has guaranteed himself a fistful of doubloons. That could expand to a treasure chest if the British No 1 carves his way through the eight-man field at the end-of-season spectacular, the Tennis Masters Cup.

Easier said than done, of course. The eight qualifiers have earned their tilt at the jackpot of just under £1 million available to anyone who sails through the week unbeaten, as Roger Federer did last year. Henman's arrival four days ago at the West Side Tennis Club, where the tournament is to be staged outdoors on a hard court, means he pockets a "participation fee" of more than £50,000, and each victory would be worth a further £70,000 at the round-robin stage. After that, you start talking telephone numbers.

A place at the Masters is not something Tim has managed often. In 1997, as an alternate on stand-by, he was flown out to Hanover because of an injury crisis to play just one match, winning it. The following year, having qualified, he reached the semi-finals. Despite finishing in the world's top 10 for four of the past five years, this is Henman's first Masters since then, and Annacone considers it deserved reward for what he calls "a pretty good year, a pretty solid year, an important year too, with some ground-breaking results".

Last week marked the first anniversary of Annacone's involvement with Henman, so this former coach to Pete Sampras was well positioned to comment on a year which has seen Tim reach the semi-finals of the French and US Opens, both for the first time, and win 43 of his 63 matches without actually capturing a tournament.

Those Grand Slam achievements (he had a 16-4 record in the four majors) added up to what Annacone called "a ground-breaking year." While talking up his man is the norm for a coach, he readily acknowledged Henman's bleak European autumn at tournaments in Madrid, Basle and Paris, which ended with his squeaking into the Masters courtesy of the shortcomings of his closest rivals, Andre Agassi and David Nalbandian, rather than his own successes. "Tim didn't do a great job with that trip," said Annacone. "I don't think I did a great job helping him circumvent that, either. Everyone wants to play well all the time, but that doesn't happen very much and you come to terms with the fact. Instead of getting frustrated, Tim has been comfortable playing the right style. Hang in there, trust your talent and get through those matches any way. That has been the reawakening for him, and for me it has been fun to watch."

Annacone dismissed the lack of a tournament victory as no big deal. "You always want to win, but also look for experience and progress. Progress outweighs winning, it's the most important thing, and Tim's progress has been steady. It would be terrific to see him in Grand Slam semi-finals again next year, put him in that spot again and see how he does."

Having renewed his agreement with Henman for 2005, Annacone will be in a position to see how he copes. "As you start to see improvement the bar is raised. What last year would have been acceptable to me is now a tad below par." The fact that Henman has passed his 30th birthday does not, in Annacone's view, raise that bar even higher. "It's harder the older you get, the year tends to feel a bit longer. But the desire to improve has been the foundation of his whole career.

"That's why he is likely to play his best tennis in the next couple of years. He has this youthful desire to keep on, whereas other 30-year-olds don't enjoy it any more. I didn't enjoy it at 30, neither did Sampras. That's why I marvel at Agassi, that he still wants to do it at 34, and even with him it can't last the whole year."

Agassi misses Houston by one place, news which deeply disappointed the tournament organisers, who now find themselves with only one American, Andy Roddick, to pull in extra punters. Roddick is Henman's first opponent on Tuesday night in the round-robin stages, where he must also face the rampantly in-form Marat Safin and Argentina's Guillermo Coria, the man who edged him out in the French Open semis.

It is a tough ask, but as Annacone pointed out: "You aren't going to ease your way into this event. It's the best eight players in the world." Henman will be grateful that the other four-man group contains the world No 1, Switzerland's Federer, with whom he has been practising over the past few days, and his nemesis, Lleyton Hewitt, against whom he has lost eight straight times, as well as lesser threats like Carlos Moya and Gaston Gaudio.

If he is to make it into Saturday's semi-finals, offering a payday of £200,000, Henman must win his group or finish runner-up. The Americans might not like it, but the Briton is eminently capable of defeating Roddick, and has done so three times out of their four previous matches. Coria, to whom Henman has lost three times in four meetings, should be no trouble since this will be his first tournament following shoulder surgery in August, but Tim's head-to-head record of 2-2 against Safin indicates a close contest in prospect against the Russian whose autumn has been as spectacularly successful as Henman's was bleak.

Since the US Open in September, Safin has been the tennis tour's hottest operator, losing only three of his 25 matches and capturing three titles; not bad for someone written off following an injury-plagued 2003. This is Safin's third Masters qualification in five years and he will be hoping to go one better than Lisbon in 2000, when he went out in the semis to the eventual champion, Gustavo Kuerten.

However, the clear favourite, should he be fully over his muscle strain, is the current champion, Federer. The 23-year-old Swiss is still No 1, and by some distance, after winning 10 titles this year, most of them big ones. He is the first since Mats Wilander 16 years ago to hold three Grand Slams, having missed out only on the French, and also reeled in three Masters Series victories, the next most important prizes.

Houston's field includes five men who have been world No 1 - Federer, Hewitt, Roddick, Safin and Moya - the first time this has ever happened in a tournament which began life in 1970 and has changed its title a few times but remains the professional tour's pinnacle. A pinnacle with a pot of gold.

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