Henman committed to a life of hard labour

Ronald Atkin talks to Britain's No 1 about what might have been
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The early evening waterside setting at the Sonesta Beach Resort came pretty close to perfection. A calypso band called Steel Away thrummed in the background at some company or other's happy-hour party, the Atlantic lapped Key Biscayne's sand and a man in a truly terrible red shirt strolled around with a parrot perched in the crook of one arm, doing his bit for ambience.

Tim Henman sat at a table thatched with palm fronds, only the sand at his feet a reminder of the work awaiting. It had been 48 hours since the nightmare of those four missed match points against Andre Agassi and now the time was approaching to think of tennis on clay.

Henman was just back at his luxury hotel after seeing his conqueror, Agassi, limp to semi-final defeat at the Ericsson Open. "It was frustrating to sit and watch that. I felt like I should have been out there. But you live and learn.

"For someone who enjoys winning as much as I do, to come so close in such circumstances against the best player in the world still makes me sick to think about it, to think I had those opportunities and didn't quite finish it. But it will make me stronger. When I get into this situation again there is no way I can let myself go through this again. I will have to win, it's as simple as that.

"Against a lot of people the game I played might have got me through when I served for the match. When I get home I will sit down and watch the match in full. One of my good habits is that I learn from my losses and if I notice anything I'll make sure it doesn't happen again."

Does his disappointment on such occasions sometimes escalate into fury, perhaps? "Yeah, I can throw my toys around once in a while but at the end of the day I've got to put it right on the court by continuing what I'm doing because I know I'm going in the right direction. I have to be patient and sometimes I know people around me won't be as patient as I have to be.

"Having lost six finals in a row, for example, is something I'm not particularly proud of and would desperately like to change. But if you look at the statistics I've lost to good people in close matches, like 7-6 in the third to Pete Sampras at Queen's. But I'm not one to kid myself, to try and make excuses. For instance, I should have won Doha early last year, I should have beaten Rainer Schuttler in that final.

"The other five finals were close but they didn't quite go my way. The only way I'm going to put it right is to put myself in that situation again. It's no good getting to a semi-final and then saying I don't want to play in another final just in case I lose. I've got to put myself in that situation and I will win. But it's frustrating, to say the least."

Henman and his wife Lucy went deep-sea fishing yesterday and will fly home tomorrow. What awaits is hard labour on the clay. He will play four events leading up to the French Open - Estoril, Monte Carlo, Rome and Hamburg. "It will be a little bit of a shock to the system, it's fair to say," he said. He will play the Estoril event for the first time, seeded high with Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Nicolas Lapentti, "plus every Spaniard and his dog''.

Henman would not deny that in some previous years the European clay season has been regarded as something to be endured between spring on hard courts and the grass court summer when his game truly blossoms.

"But this year my expectations are high and I hope to move another couple of steps forward. If I won 10 matcheson clay this year, that wouldbe quite an achievement. And to be realistic, Estoril wouldbe my best chance of a title.It's a big challenge but one I feel a lot more confident about approaching."

At the end of the first segment of a year to mark the beginning of what he calls Phase Two of his career, Henman said: "I wouldn't give myself 10 out of 10 so far but I am definitely very satisfied with the way it has unfolded. There has been an improvement in the areas I've been looking for: my serve, my forehand and my movement.

"It is still very early stages but I've got to make sure that in the next six months I keep my work ethic going because there are going to be periods when I struggle, like I did when I lost my one really bad match this year, to Mariano Zabaleta at the London Arena. But we're in April now, so that's a big improvement on the inconsistency I've had in other stages of my career."

And Wimbledon? "I have had no doubts in my mind over the last two years that I could win Wimbledon, and my belief this year is stronger than ever. I am serving more consistently, I serve to the corners better than I used to. My movement is also a step quicker over the past few weeks.

"The nuts and bolts of grass court tennis are serve and volley, and covering the net. I definitely like the way those have improved."

In readiness for the grass court season, Henman will also take his attacking game on to clay. "That is the way for me to improve my game on other surfaces." And to think, perhaps one more time, about what might have been in Key Biscayne.

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