Henman back from Paris with a spring

Confidence high after his feats on clay, Britain's No 1 heads for home promising the best is yet to come
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The Independent Online

The clinging red dust has been rinsed from his socks, and now Tim Henman is ready to launch himself into the grass- court segment of the tennis season. Tim's time of year, his Holy Grail. Usually, Wimbledon is welcomed by Henman with never a backward glance or passing thought about what has preceded it, but now things are different.

The clinging red dust has been rinsed from his socks, and now Tim Henman is ready to launch himself into the grass- court segment of the tennis season. Tim's time of year, his Holy Grail. Usually, Wimbledon is welcomed by Henman with never a backward glance or passing thought about what has preceded it, but now things are different.

A semi-final at the French Open, something he could never have imagined, albeit as a result in part of the friendliest of draws, has instilled in Henman the confidence that, at 29, this could really be the year he measures up to the expectations of the nation and gets two victories further at Wimbledon than ever before.

The memories he carries back home with his new world ranking of five could hardly be more positive. "When you reflect that on the first afternoon at Roland Garros I was two sets down to Cyril Saulnier and feeling pretty awful," he recalled, insisting that he has now shaken off the viral infection which had helped to bring him so low. "Just to take away from here the wins I have had and the confidence it has given me on the strength of performing well at a Grand Slam outside of Wimbledon, that's great."

However, as he stressed, there remains much for Henman and his inspiring coach, Paul Annacone, to build on. Having reduced the world's best clay-court operator, Guillermo Coria, to near-panic for a set and a half of glorious, attacking tennis, Henman went off the boil. At 4-2 in the second set, having breezed through the first, he had Coria on the ropes, as the Argentinian acknowledged. "If Tim had won the second set, the match would have been over in one-and-a-half hours," he said.

That first set was the best I have seen Henman play anywhere. He ran down Coria's speciality drop-shot every time, drew his opponent off the baseline he regards as his natural home and then passed him disdainfully. It was incredible stuff. Ironically, the rot set in after his best shot of the match, a vaulting slam-dunk smash in the best Pete Sampras style.

At once Henman double-faulted, faltered and Coria was back in it. So much so that he reeled off 13 straight games. It became so embarrassing that in the British section of the press box one reporter raised a white handkerchief. But surrender has never been part of the Henman make-up, and there was a fourth-set comeback which again had Coria wobbling as the crowd got behind Henman.

The fact that our man became their man was another indication of the extra awareness Annacone has managed to implant. Henman conducted himself impeccably throughout the tournament, especially in his matches against the Frenchmen, Saulnier and Michael Llodra. The fist was never raised, emotions were kept under lock and key, and the Parisians loved what they saw, a serve-and-volley crusader attacking the baseline brigade. That policy, thank heaven, remains the heart and soul of the Henman game. Agreeing that Annacone has changed small things in his style, as well as inspiring that dramatic change of attitude, he said: "I believe I'm the best volleyer in the world. Add to that the fact that I think I'm the best athlete at the net. So, if I believe that, why should I play from the baseline? Because I'm not the best baseline player in the world.

"This [the French Open] is definitely the most difficult challenge. Not only is it the surface and the conditions, but the fact that you have got maybe five genuine serve-volleyers in a field of 128, so your chances are pretty slim to start with. But I have strength in my belief that I can play very effectively on this surface. And if I can be in the semis of a Slam, why can't I go further? Improving my record at Grand Slams outside Wimbledon is something I've been working towards, because I don't think it has been good enough. But now, with my attitude and the way it has changed, I think I can win every time I step on court."

Henman repeated what has become his mantra: "If I play my style, I can beat every player out there." The fact that Coria considers Henman should now rank among the world's 10 best clay-court players will certainly do nothing to damage Tim's shining confidence as he heads towards Wimbledon and what he firmly believes is destiny.

"So am I going to win every tournament? Absolutely not," he said. "But you can get caught up in all that talk of 'success' and 'failure' by winning or losing matches. I want to be able to analyse these matches and say, 'I lost today but I'm pleased with the way I played. I did the right things and the guy was better than me'. It has been an unbelievably positive couple of weeks for me. Although I am disappointed with the outcome I think, on reflection, there's a lot of exciting things ahead for me."

Wimbledon, for instance. "If I was physically and mentally exhausted, then maybe it would be a downside for Wimbledon. But I've got two weeks to get ready, and the time it takes me to adapt to grass is pretty quick. Anyway, as my record there shows [four semi-finals], my record going into Wimbledon doesn't really have a great bearing on how I play there. But having said that, it's another opportunity to continue what I'm trying to do.

"The crux of what I'm trying to do with my game is about clarity of purpose and imposing my style. Every time you stand up, whether you're returning or serving, you want to have a plan. And on grass it should be the easiest, because the points are shorter. The points, and the style of the points, are dictated by the surface. And that's something that has massively improved in my clay-court game. So I'm pretty optimistic about taking that attitude on to grass. Plus the fact that I'm very fresh, very eager. I'll be ready to play [at Queen's Club] on Wednesday."

By then the unshaven look which Henman was sporting in Paris, in imitation of the scrubby beard which Bjorn Borg used to cultivate at Wimbledon until he was beaten, will be gone. "I'm pretty sick of it," he confessed with a smile. But not sick, or pessimistic, about his prospects over the next few weeks.

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