Edgy Henman joins Rusedski in losing on first spin of wheel

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman came to the Monte Carlo Masters hoping to dig deep for the clay court season the way he did last year. Greg Rusedski may have wondered whether to bring a bucket and spade. The outcome - a first-round defeat - was the same for both Brits.

Tim Henman came to the Monte Carlo Masters hoping to dig deep for the clay court season the way he did last year. Greg Rusedski may have wondered whether to bring a bucket and spade. The outcome - a first-round defeat - was the same for both Brits.

Rusedski, whose 40-plus world ranking leaves him prone to drawing top players early, came out of the hat with Roger Federer, the world No 1, who is seeking the unique distinction of winning three Masters Series tournaments in a row.

Although Rusedski began by rocking Federer with some sharp backhands to lead, 3-1, the Swiss Wimbledon champion shrugged off such insolence and took the next nine games in a row to win, 6-3, 6-1, in little more than an hour. Rusedski, who has not won a Tour match on clay since Rome 2001, caught the first available flight back to London to start building his fitness for the best-of-five-sets matches ahead, particularly on the Wimbledon lawns.

Henman, the third seed, lost to the 51st-ranked Mariano Zabaleta over two wet days, extending his lack of success against the Argentinian on clay to four matches. The British No 1 threatened to turn around the second part of this week's match of two halves. A set and a break down when it was rained off on Monday night, Henman retrieved the second set yesterday, only for Zabaleta to prevail, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

Henman has already lost some of the world ranking points he accumulated during last season's clay court campaign that led to the semi-finals at the French Open. His latest contest against Zabaleta produced an entertaining array of angled drives and drop-shots on both sides of the net in spite of the difficult conditions. Broken by Zabaleta in the opening game of the first set, Henman was unable to convert any of three opportunities to recover to 4-4. He did not make the same mistake in the second set, which resumed yesterday with Zabaleta a break up at 2-1.

Zabaleta's service action involves minimal take-back, rather like an angler casting a rod. It works well enough when he does not have to think too much about it, but Henman's improving form began to play on the Argentinian's mind. He saved a break point at 3-2, but became increasingly edgy while serving at 4-3 and twice changed his racket, although the tension that really mattered was in his limbs. Zabaleta double-faulted on the first and third points, and Henman broke with a potent return.

Henman saved three break points to lead 5-4, and converted his third set point in the next game, returning a second serve. So, for 37 minutes yesterday, Henman was the dominant force. But Zabaleta attacked Henman's serve in the final set and broke for 3-2. Henman had three opportunities to break back in the next game, but Zabaleta was able to hold. Henman then twice double-faulted on game points before losing his serve again for 2-5 and Zabaleta served out the match in the rain for the loss of only two more points.

Ã’Given the circumstances, Henman said, "There certainly isn't anything wrong with my game." Last night, however, his defence of the doubles title also ended in the first round. He and his new partner - Yves Allegro, of Switzerland, replaced Nenad Zimonjic, of Serbia and Montenegro - lost to Mariano Hood, of Argentina, and Michael Kohlman, of Germany, 6-3, 6-1. Earlier, Mariano Puerta, of Argentina, defeated Carlos Moya, of Spain, a former French Open champion and world No 1, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3.

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