Henman breaks new ground against Black

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman, whose six matches against Byron Black have taken place in locations as varied as Seoul, South Korea, and Los Angeles, California, is about to break new ground today by playing the Zimbabwean on clay for the first time, in the opening round at the Italian Open here.

Neither man has a reputation for expertise on the slow red courts of Europe, the 30-year-old Black having learned the game on four grass courts built on his family's avocado farm in Harare by his father, Don, who competed at Wimbledon six times in the 1950s.

Henman, who lost his first two matches against Black in 1996, on a concrete court in Seoul and an indoor carpet in Moscow, has won the last four: on grass at Wimbledon and London's Queen's Club, and on concrete in Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Arizona.

It will be interesting to see who adapts better to clay, particularly since Henman, the No 8 seed, knows that yesterday's draw might have paired him with one of the numerous specialists on the surface who have made their way to the Foro Italico for the year's fourth ATP Tour Tennis Masters Series tournament.

Such was the fate of Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, who will play Fernando Vincente, a 23-year-old Spaniard from the Barcelona stable which produced Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja, among others. Rusedski, seeded No 13, has not played Vincente before.

Henman, placed in the same quarter as Andre Agassi, the world No 1, may have to meet Corretja or the Slovak Karol Kucera if he advances to the third round. Kucera eliminated Henman at the same stage last year, after the Oxfordshire man became the first Briton to reach the last 16 here since Buster Mottram in 1982.

Rusedski, whose only win in four appearances in Rome was against Australia's Scott Draper in the first round last year, is in the same quarter as Cedric Pioline, the French No 5 seed who won the recent Monte Carlo Open. If Rusedski advances to the second round he will play either Andrei Medvedev, of the Ukraine, or the Swiss Roger Federer.

Agassi, back on European clay for the first time since winning the French Open last year, plays his American compatriot Todd Martin in the first round today. Agassi has won 10 of their 15 previous matches, most recently in the final of last year's United States Open.

* Russia's Marat Safin, champion at Barcelona last week, won his second successive title on Spanish clay yesterday, easing to a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sweden's Mikael Tillstrom in the final of the Mallorca Open.