Henman breaks with convention to become the new talk of Paris
British No 1's aggression on the clay of Roland Garros has caught rivals off guard, writes John Roberts
Thursday 03 June 2004
The Breathtaking surprise of Tim Henman's progress to the semi-finals on the slow clay courts at the French Open was encapsulated by an Irishman, Ossian Shine, of Reuters, who wrote: "Like land-locked Switzerland winning the America's Cup, this was not meant to happen." Those unfamiliar with the nuances of tennis, who probably wonder why so much fuss is being made about Henman's adventures in Paris, where he has achieved nothing more than he has done already four times on the lawns of Wimbledon -
the only place where the sport really matters - deserve an explanation.
The Breathtaking surprise of Tim Henman's progress to the semi-finals on the slow clay courts at the French Open was encapsulated by an Irishman, Ossian Shine, of Reuters, who wrote: "Like land-locked Switzerland winning the America's Cup, this was not meant to happen." Those unfamiliar with the nuances of tennis, who probably wonder why so much fuss is being made about Henman's adventures in Paris, where he has achieved nothing more than he has done already four times on the lawns of Wimbledon - the only place where the sport really matters - deserve an explanation.
Grass is the fastest outdoor surface for tennis, generally favouring an attacking player, such as Henman, whose style is to serve with pace and move to the net in readiness to volley the return of serve.
Until the late 1970s, when three of the world's four major championships were played on grass, serve-and volley predominated. The French Championships was the only Grand Slam tournament played on slow clay courts - terre battue (beaten earth) - generally favouring counter-punching baseline players with finely honed ground-strokes and a penchant for winning lengthy rallies.
Great attacking players, such as Fred Perry, of Britian, Donald Budge, of the United States, and Rod Laver, of Australia, were able to adapt their style to the demands of clay, one which the knack of sliding into shots on the soft surface was part of the art of the game.
Since the US Open and the Australian switched from grass courts to rubberised concrete serve-and-volleyers have become a dying species, with Henman among the last of the breed.
Baseliners - or "attacking ground-strokers," as the American Jim Courier preferred to describe his game - quickly adapted to clay from medium-paced concrete, whereas Pete Sampras, who amassed seven Wimbledon titles in his record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, suffered frustration trying unsuccessfully to translate his skills to the French Open.
John McEnroe's biggest disappointment was his capitulation after leading Ivan Lendl by two sets to love in the 1984 final, the distraction of a whirring courtside machine prompting the turbulent New Yorker to act up and lose concentration.
Boris Becker, an awesome champion on other surfaces, never won a singles title on clay courts. He was a semi-finalist at the 1989 French Open, losing to a fellow serve-volleyer, Stefan Edberg, of Sweden, who went on to lose in the final to the American Michael Chang, an indefatigable retriever. When Sampras won the Italian Open in 1994, Becker was his opponent in the final.
Henman, who has now equalled Sampras' best performance of a semi-final appearance here in 1996, was a player baseliners dreamed of being drawn to play on clay at the French Open. Admitting that he had no idea how to play on the surface earlier in his career, the 29-year-old Henman decided that he would be better served playing his natural game on clay than trying to grind out points with the back-court boys.
It may seem strange that Henman's dramatic transformation has taken place with guidance from Paul Annacone, an American coach who spent years trying to help Sampras get a foothold at the French Open. As a player, Annacone, in common with many of his compatriots, was not noted for his expertise on clay.
None of that matters with regard to Annacone's association with Henman. What the coach has done since they began working together on a part-time basis at the end of last year has been simple and effective. He has encouraged his client to liberate his thinking on the court and play to his strengths.
A shoulder injury during the build up to the 2002 US Open contributed to a worrying period of weaker serving by Henman, although, on the advice of his former coach, Larry Stefanki, he had already taken a degree of the pace off his serve before the injury occurred.
The idea was to improve Henman's first serve percentage, which had been erratic. But Henman became less aggressive as a result of the change.
No longer serving with enough power to avoid being passed as he came to the net, Henman became increasingly frustrated at his inability to hurt opponents and began to spend more time on the baseline than was good for him. Shoulder surgery at the end of 2002 resulted in Henman having to rehabilitate his game during his early tournaments last year. He did well to reach the third round of the French Open, taking a set off Juan Carlos Ferrero, of Spain, the eventual champion.
The short grass court season, in which Henman had so often prospered in the past, was a disappointment. He lost to the Frenchman Sébastien Grosjean in the semi-finals at Queen's Club and also in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
An impressive start to the summer hard court season brought Henman his first title in America. His victory in Washington included a win against Andy Roddick in the semi-finals, but Roddick made up for that by eliminating Henman in the first round at the US Open, en route to his first Grand Slam championship.
Henman thanked Stefanki for improving his all-round game in difficult circumstances and decided to play out the remainder of the season without a coach. He stunned everybody by winning the first Masters Series title of his career on indoor carpet courts at Paris Bercy in November, in the process defeating Grosjean, Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, and Roddick.
Before each match in Paris, Henman spoke on the telephone with Annacone, who told him to be aggressive. In December, Annacone agreed to became Henman's coach.
"I feel very positive about the direction in which I'm going," Henman said. "The biggest positive is the way I'm serving. There's been very little focus on the technical side, just a totally different mindset of being so much more aggressive.
"It all revolves around a plan, and you have to break that down to every individual point, every individual shot. Paul told me in conversation, four, five or six years ago, that it's a massive attribute to have options in my game, but it's much harder to try to use them in a correct way.
"It's still down to me. I'm the one that's got to go out there and use these tools that I've got." Determination has also been a major factor in Henman's French odyssey, enabling him to recover from two sets to love down in two of his five matches. But the rarity of his attacking style on clay has made him the talk of the tournament.
"Paul actually saw some of the guys talking about my game," he said. "I don't think they like playing me on clay. You see them making hand movements when they're discussing my style. You get an idea of what they're complaining about. That's a good sign for me."
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