Henman defeats nemesis to set up Hewitt semi-final

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The statistics might have suggested it was more like a clay-court match in the rain featuring players recovering from shoulder surgery rather than a meeting in glorious sunshine between a grass-court specialist and one of the game's hardest hitters.

There were 12 breaks of serve in the 21 games played by the second pair of quarter-finalists in the Stella Artois Championships here yesterday but, as far as Tim Henman was concerned, the only statistic that mattered was the final score. Henman beat Dmitry Tursunov, who has knocked him out of three of the last four Grand Slam tournaments, 6-3, 7-6, to set up a semi-final today against Lleyton Hewitt.

Hewitt went through after Rafael Nadal retired from their match with the recurrence of an injury to his left shoulder. The French Open champion was flying back to Madrid last night to see a specialist and could be doubtful for Wimbledon.

In beating Andre Agassi, Ramon Delgado, Nicholas Mahut and Tursunov here, Henman has enjoyed his longest winning sequence since he reached the semi-finals of the 2004 US Open. Having changed his training regime and modified his game in order to counter a back problem that had been pulling him down for the last two years, the 31-year-old Briton is at last running into something like the form that saw him reach three Wimbledon semi-finals, the last of them in 2002. With this year's championships just nine days away, his timing could not be better.

It felt just like the old days yesterday. The sun shone and the Pimms flowed as the Centre Court crowd even delayed lunch in order to have the hero of middle England toy with their emotions.

Henman, who has reached three finals here but never won the tournament, sprinted into a 3-0 lead with two breaks of serve, lost the next three games in a row and then took the first set with two more breaks. On the final point, Tursunov stopped playing, wrongly thinking he had hit the ball out.

In the second set, Henman was serving at game point and 4-2, only to lose three games in succession once again. Tursunov, however, threw away a set point at 5-4 by serving a double fault and Henman levelled at 5-5 when the Russian missed a simple smash. There was no debate in the tie-break, which Henman won 7-1. Tursunov failed to return Henman's first three serves and hit two backhands and a forehand out before the Briton converted his first match point with a forehand winner.

As Henman said afterwards, the results of Tursunov's matches tend to depend on what is happening on the Russian's side of the net rather than his opponent's. The world No33 hits the ball as hard as anybody and can be virtually unplayable. As in too many spells in this match, however, his game and his spirits can dip as quickly as some of his forehands.

"That number of service breaks isn't necessarily the norm on grass, but his game can be so up and down," Henman said. "The reason he's so difficult to play is that a lot of it is out of your control. He has so much power and can be so erratic you feel like you're reacting a lot."

For years Hewitt was Henman's most troublesome opponent. The Australian won their first eight encounters, including the finals here in 2001 and 2002 and the 2002 Wimbledon semi-final. But Henman beat him in Miami in March and Hewitt is feeling his way back after injury.

While Henman has not dropped a set this week, Hewitt had to go all the way against Fernando Vicente and Max Mirnyi and would have had to do the same again had Nadal not retired hurt. The Spaniard took the first set 6-3 but needed treatment as he lost the second set by the same margin before deciding not to risk his shoulder any more.

Gael Monfils was also in the wars. The Frenchman lost the first set 6-1 to James Blake before retiring with a shoulder injury, which will keep him out of the Nottingham tournament next week. Blake now plays Andy Roddick, who needed only an hour to beat Fernando Gonzalez, 6-4, 6-3.

* Greg Rusedski has pulled out of the Nottingham tournament with a hip injury, and must be rated doubtful for Wimbledon. Jamie Delgado, Alan Mackin and Martin Lee, the winner, runner-up and third-place finisher in the Wimbledon wild card play-offs, have all been given wild card entries into the championships, against the advice of the Lawn Tennis Association. Naomi Cavaday, the winner of the women's wild card play-off, has also been given an entry.

* Champion Maria Sharapova cruised into the semi-finals of the Birmingham Classic with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Italian Mara Santangelo. Sharapova, chasing a hat-trick of titles in the Wimbledon warm-up event, will now meet fellow Russian Elena Likhovtseva or American Jamea Jackson.

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