El Aynaoui defies years to reach semi-finals

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Tim Henman is driven by the belief that his best days are not behind him at 29. It can only strengthen the British No 1's faith in himself amid the doubters that a late developer such as Younes El Aynaoui is able to advance to his first Masters Series semi-final at 32.

It may be recalled that Henman excelled himself in defeating El Aynaoui in a recent Davis Cup tie against Morocco in Casablanca and went on to reach the semi-finals of a tournament in Vienna a week ago. Unfortunately, Henman's serve and confidence deserted him in the first round of the Madrid Masters here, where El Aynaoui has made the most of "a conjunction of good form and mental desire".

"It's a surprise on one hand," the tall, lean El Aynaoui said, "but [my opponents] know I have been playing at a high level for a year or two now." Smiling, he added: "So one week has to be mine. In Miami this year, I lost to Agassi in the quarter-finals in a tough match. I feel that I'm getting more dangerous."

In the quarter-finals here yesterday, El Aynaoui snatched victory from the grasp of Sebastien Grosjean, the French sixth seed, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2. Grosjean saved three set points from 6-3 down in the second set tie-break to come within two points of winning the match. El Aynaoui took the shoot-out, 8-6.

The Moroccan world No 18 rated his progress here the highlight of a memorable season in which he pushed Andy Roddick to five sets over four hours 59 minutes in an epic Australian Open quarter-final, and helped secure Morocco's place in the Davis Cup World Group at Britain's expense, notwithstanding his loss to Henman.

"I also had some very good moments at Wimbledon, when I played on the Centre Court," El Aynaoui said. "That was something special. But to reach the semi-finals in a tournament like this makes me feel I still have some great moments coming on."

An appearance in tomorrow's final would enhance his reputation, but that is unlikely to be an easy task. El Aynaoui's opponent today is Nicolas Massu, the 24-year-old Chilean who eliminated Roddick, the United States Open champion, in the third round and yesterday overcame Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, to reach his first Masters Series semi-final.

Juan Carlos Ferrero confirmed his position as the world No 1 for another week by reaching the semi-finals with a 6-4, 6-2 win against the erratic Paradorn Srichaphan, of Thailand. Ferrero will play either Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, or the Spanish left-hander Feliciano Lopez.

El Aynaoui believes he has the experience and fitness to prosper among the fresh faces at the top of the game. "Roddick and Ferrero," he said, "are both close to being No 1 at the end of the year. I beat both of them. I feel I'm closer to these guys than a few years ago, when Pete [Sampras] was on top. So that gives me a chance to think I can be up there, too.

"Today we see there's a different winner at every Grand Slam. A few years ago, we knew the tops guys wouldn't lose before the semi-finals, and today there are so many surprises. I won't say that these guys are playing less well than the others were, because it won't be fair. But I'm sure there is a bigger group behind that is pushing."

Asked if it was this year that it first dawned on him that he had so much potential, El Aynaoui said: "I don't think I have realised it. I don't know how those players think. I wish I could be somewhere inside their brain and think how Roger Federer thinks. I'm always surprised by myself."