Form on clay gives boost to Henman's confidence

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The Independent Online

When it comes to watching Tim Henman on slow, demanding clay courts, it is useful to note the number of hours he spends in competition as a guide to possible form and conditioning for future tournaments on other surfaces, particularly his favourite, grass.

Henman has exchanged shots on the beaten earth this season for 14 and a half hours and counting, including his progress to the singles quarter-finals and doubles title in Monte Carlo. The British No 1's win here yesterday, 7-5, 6-1, against Florian Mayer, a German qualifier, took him into the second round of the Rome Masters for the first time for four years.

"The time on the clay is going to be beneficial in general," Henman said, encouraged by the opportunity he has had to build his stamina and confidence and sharpen his groundstrokes.

Unwell in his last two matches at the Foro Italico against Latin American clay-courters, Guillermo Coria and Fernando Gonzalez, Henman yesterday found himself facing Mayer, a 20-year-old who had spent the weekend qualifying for a crack at his first Masters Series event.

Henman next plays Radek Stepanek, of the Czech Republic, who eliminated a struggling Goran Ivanisevic, 6-2, 6-4.

Mayer, a semi-finalist on clay in Estoril last month, has an awkward style, as Henman saw here when watching the tall, lean German defeat Antony Dupuis, of France, in the opening round of qualifying. His serve is unfussy, but reasonably solid, he hits deep groundstrokes of varying pace, slices well, and is not afraid to come to the net.

"His shots are a little bit unorthodox, but very, very effective," Henman said. "When I watched him in qualies, obviously I had no idea that I was going to play him. He played a tough match against Dupuis."

Henman, the fourth seed, admitted that he experienced a shift in his mental approach to the contest when he realised he would be playing an eager newcomer. "It was a different type of feeling today," Henman said. "In Monaco I was very relaxed and loose on the court and felt there was really nothing to lose. It's difficult to have that same attitude when you're playing a qualifier ranked 94 in the world."

The unease in Henman's mind showed at the start of the match. He landed only one first serve in the opening game, in which he double-faulted to lose serve, and Mayer won eight of the first nine points before Henman steadied himself with a service winner.

Henman recovered the break for 3-3 after Mayer played a drop-shot wide and came through a critical game serving at 5-5. Mayer improvised a spectacular backhand shot down the line for deuce, promoting Henman to tap his racket strings in appreciation.

Two points later, the German hurled his racket to the ground in frustration after missing a forehand drive. Henman was able to hold for 6-5 and made the decisive break in the next game, raising a roar from the crowd in the process by hitting a running forehand pass down the line.

"We both played some really great points in that game and I had to stay mentally strong," Henman said. After a testing opening 44 minutes, Henman dominated the second set, Mayer losing his serve for 3-1, firing an ambitious backhand volley long, and being broken again for 5-1, beaten by Henman's return of a second serve. Henman served the match out to love after 70 minutes.

"The important aspect was that I was able to stay relaxed and be very clear in my mind how I wanted to play," Henman said. "Tactically, I worked out his game pretty well. Sometimes the better and the faster I hit the ball, the better he was playing. I stayed patient, played some good, long rallies and changed the pace.

"I think you [press] guys watching could see it was a fine line today. I got off to a bad start, not sure how he was going to play, and it would have been easy to get frustrated and take that as, 'l lost first round here the last couple of years, I wanted to do well, and this guy's playing great and a qualifier...'

"But thinking like that is not going to do you any good. I think I'm dealing with it a lot better."