It was like having spectator seats in a torture chamber. A Centre Court crowd which had crackled with anticipation at the start of yesterday's second-round match between Tim Henman and Roger Federer ended up all but shielding their eyes as their hero was put on the rack by the world's best player.
Federer, who won 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 in just an hour and 24 minutes, played as brilliantly as you would expect of a man who is chasing his fourth successive Wimbledon title, but there was no escaping the fact that this was a devastating defeat for Henman. The Briton's game fell apart in the last two sets under Federer's awesome assault as he went out in the second round here for the second year in succession.
The second set, in particular, was desperate. Henman won only five points as he lost a set to love for the first time in 13 years and 54 matches at Wimbledon. The only previous occasion when he has won just six games in a match at a Grand Slam tournament was against Jonas Bjorkman in Australia 10 years ago. Federer, recording his 43rd win in a row on grass, won 11 games in succession before Henman salvaged some pride by holding two service games in the final set.
Considering all the excitement, drama and pleasure that Henman has brought to Wimbledon over the years, it was a sorry scene to witness. No other player in the world can match his record of consistency at the All England Club since he made his senior debut here 12 years ago. The best male British tennis player of the Open era went on to reach four semi-finals and four quarter-finals and at least he can be consoled by the fact that he will be remembered for those heroic performances rather than this pallid display.
Henman, 31, maintains he has made no long-term decisions about when he will retire and after this defeat said he expected to play on for "definitely a few more years". Federer said he would be "very surprised" if this would be Henman's last Wimbledon.
The pity was that Henman had gone into the match feeling happier with his game than at any stage in the last two years. Having finally found a way to cope with the back condition which had dragged him down, he had started to piece his game back together. The former world No 4 had slipped to 76 in the rankings before his progress to the semi-finals at Queen's Club a fortnight ago had lifted him 12 places, apparently confirming his belief that he was on the brink of a major comeback.
Although he had taken five sets to beat the unheralded Swede Robin Soderling in the previous round, the feeling was that Henman could trouble Federer. Of those current players who have met the Swiss more than once, the Briton is still one of only two players - Rafael Nadal is the other - who have won more matches against Federer than they have lost. This was Henman's fifth defeat against the world No 1 (and his fourth in a row), but he has beaten him six times.
Given the build-up, it was no surprise that Henman Hill was packed and there was barely an empty seat on Centre Court. Even the royal box was nearly half full.
The first set gave little indication of what was to follow. Henman got off to the perfect start, punching home a high volley behind a fine first serve to win the first point and taking the first game to 15. He dropped his serve two games later, hitting a backhand and a forehand out and missing two successive volleys, and failed to convert two break points at 4-3.
Although there was only one break in the first set, the signs of Henman's downfall were already there. The Briton had gone into the match committed to attack, but some of his rushes to the net were ill-advised. He served and volleyed more often than he has done of late, but his serves were rarely potent enough to trouble Federer, who punished them mercilessly. A series of double-faults hardly helped.
Federer, who beat another fine grass-court player in Richard Gasquet in straight sets in the first round and believes he has never made a better start at Wimbledon, ran away with the second set after breaking to love in the first game. In his three service games in the set Henman won only one point.
When Federer dropped only two points in the first two games of the third set it was clear that the end would be swift. Henman rallied by holding serve twice, but it was only delaying the inevitable. Federer raised his racket to acknowledge the crowd at the end but seemed almost embarrassed to do so.
"It's not a lot of fun beating a friend like this," said Federer, who denied a suggestion that he had let his opponent win two games at the end. Henman certainly did not notice any favours. "There wasn't much sympathy out there, was there?" he said.
Federer, who was surprised at how often Henman had come to the net, said he found it difficult playing in front of a crowd who were clearly unhappy with what they were seeing. However, he was pleased with his own game.
"I just played an excellent match. I was very focused," he said. "I've had a tough draw where people are expecting me to struggle more. That I came through convincingly obviously gives me a lot of confidence and sends out maybe a little message to the other players."
Henman said he felt he had not served well enough to give him a chance but paid tribute to his opponent. "I'm sure I'm not the first person to lose a set 6-0 to him and I'm sure I won't be the last," he said. "He's the best player I've ever played against."
Yesterday at Wimbledon
* Tim Henman's hopes of ever winning the men's singles title receded ever further when he was demolished in three sets by Roger Federer.
* Other Brits fared better: Melanie South beat Francesca Schiavone, Sarah Borwell beat Marta Domachowska, Martin Lee beat Dick Norman.
* The defending women's champion Venus Williams ruthlessly dismantled her American compatriot Bethanie Mattek, 6-1, 6-0.
* The women's top seed Amélie Mauresmo, equally ruthless, beat the Croatian qualifier Ivana Abramovic 6-0, 6-0, in 39 minutes.