Fallible Henman falters at first

BRITAIN LOST Tim Henman in the first round at the United States Open yesterday before you could say straight sets, but the loudest groaning and wailing came from the Americans, particularly the organisers, with the announcement that Pete Sampras had withdrawn because of a herniated disc in his back.

BRITAIN LOST Tim Henman in the first round at the United States Open yesterday before you could say straight sets, but the loudest groaning and wailing came from the Americans, particularly the organisers, with the announcement that Pete Sampras had withdrawn because of a herniated disc in his back.

Gone is the prospect of a Sampras-Andre Agassi finale. Gone, at least for the moment, is the possibility of Sampras winning a record 13th Grand Slam singles title on home ground.

In that context, the elimination of Henman, the No 6 seed, by Guillermo Canas, a little known Argentinian, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3, barely rated a second glance at the scoreboard, unless the observer happened to have come from the other side of the Atlantic, in which case, there was cause for groaning and wailing.

Henman, last remembered walking off the Centre Court at Wimbledon after losing to Sampras in the semi-finals, was unrecognisable as a contender for Grand Slam titles yesterday. The British No 1 was out-thought and outplayed by Canas, a 21-year-old from Buenos Aires, ranked No 68 in the world, who is unlikely to rise to the heights of his country-man, the great Guillermo Vilas, but is capable of tripping up more unsuspecting opponents like Henman.

It was not as if Henman lacked personal experience of Canas. He defeated the Argentinian in the second round of the Canadian Open on a similar concrete court in Montreal last year, having lost the opening set. In common with most Latin Americans, Canas builds his strategy from the baseline with heavy top-spin.

This proved so successful yesterday that, after a tentative start, Canas developed the confidence to punish Henman with lobs as well as passing shots and some nifty play at the net, helped by the Briton's 52 unforced errors, chiefly on the forehand.

The last time Henman lost in the first round of a Grand Slam was at the 1998 French Open, where a back injury caused him to retire when trailing the Armenian Sargis Sargsian, 2-5, in the opening set. Earlier that year, Henman was defeated in the first round of the Australian Open by the Frenchman Jerome Golmard, 11-9 in the fifth set.

This is the first time Henman has lost his opening match at the US Open, where he advanced to the last 16 in 1996 and 1998. Seeded to meet the Dutchman Richard Krajicek in the fourth round, Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals and possibly Agassi in the semi-final, Henman's form eliminated the prospect of further engagements.

Five double-faults prevented him from making the most of Canas's nerves in the first set, in which there were four breaks of serve, and five forehand errors cost him the tie-break, 7-1. A netted backhand put Henman 0-2 down in the second set. Even though Canas "choked" when serving at 5-3, he was alert to Henman's fallibility in the next game. Henman has never come back from two sets down, and the faintest hope of his doing so here disappeared after he failed to hold on to a break at the start of the third set.

Sampras, who had recovered from a strained hip muscle, which prompted him to take the precaution of winding down his tournament preparation prior to arriving at Flushing Meadow, had a back spasm while practising with the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten last Sunday.

Granted his request for a Wednesday start, Sampras did not practice on Monday, trusting that the condition would ease before he was due to play Marat Safin, the talented Russian who won his first ATP Tour event in Boston on Sunday, defeating Britain's Greg Rusedski in the final. "The last 48 hours, I've been struggling to get round my hotel room," Sampras said.

Martina Hingis enjoyed her opening round match against her Czech opponent, Kveta Hrdlickova, whom she beat 6-1, 7-5. "If she played like that all the time, she could be better than she's ranked," Hingis said after fending off the world No 74.

Hingis says she has also changed her point of view in other ways since losing her temper during the French Open final, and losing her first round match at Wimbledon.

"I learned a lot from those two tournaments," Hingis said. "I think you can learn more from disappointment than just by winning. Winning comes naturally. I'm used to that. But if you lose something, you expect yourself to do better and try to improve."

Petr Korda, the former Australian Open champion, has been banned for one year after he lost an arbitration ruling yesterday and was ordered to forfeit all prize since July 1998 for testing positive for the steroid nandrolone at Wimbledon last year.

The ATP Tour event at Battersea Park in February will be switched to the London Arena in Docklands and change its name from the Guardian Direct Cup to the Axa Cup.

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