Henman digs for victory in unfamiliar territory

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It is astonishing that Tim Henman should be only three giant strides away from winning the French Open title when he has not advanced beyond the third round in eight previous visits to the slow, red, alien clay courts of Paris.

It is astonishing that Tim Henman should be only three giant strides away from winning the French Open title when he has not advanced beyond the third round in eight previous visits to the slow, red, alien clay courts of Paris.

Were Henman in familiar quarter-final territory on his beloved Wimbledon lawns, people would be shouting their expectation from the rooftops of SW19. When he plays Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, here today on the showpiece Court Philippe Chatrier, the only pressure the British No 1 is likely to feel will come from within, born of ambition and pride.

There are no more contrasting figures in the last eight than Henman, a Britisher digging for victory, and Gustavo Kuerten, a Brazilian in pursuit of his fourth crown. They are styles apart, are featured in opposite halves of the draw, and do not even have ailments in common. Henman says he is feeling better after playing through four rounds with a viral infection, while Kuerten frets that a hip injury that has troubled him for three years may flare up again and handicap his chances.

That would be a pity, for Kuerten and the spectators, because so far the idolised Brazilian has served like a demon, buying time for his searing groundstrokes. Since the second game of the opening set of his third-round win against Roger Federer, the Swiss world No 1 and Wimbledon champion, Kuerten has faced only one break point in his last 30 service games.

Feliciano Lopez, of Spain, Kuerten's fourth-round opponent yesterday, managed to convert that point as the Brazilian served for the second set at 5-3. It did not make much difference, as Kuerten went on to win, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, after an hour and 52 minutes.

Asked by your correspondent if he was surprised to see Henman in the last eight, Kuerten said: "In one way, I am a little bit surprised. But after I reached the quarter-finals in Wimbledon [in 1999] I knew everything was possible, because I think it was much tougher for me to get that far there and for him here.

"He's had a couple of results already on clay - not very significant - but he managed to win good matches. And I think he had a good draw to get to the quarter-finals. He managed to fight back twice from two sets to love, so this is already enough for him to deserve this achievement.

"These challenges bring us expectations and goals. At the same time, I see myself going out there and trying to have some fun. I think it's the same way that Tim comes around here and believes in himself. [On Sunday] I saw him losing sets and coming back and trying to enjoy himself a little bit more."

The master reminded us of the qualities, aside from stamina, needed for success on clay: "First, to play well on this surface, you have to be technically perfect. You cannot have a gap in your game that your opponent would take advantage of. It's a little bit slower, so you have the time to place the balls closer to the lines."

In his quarter-final tomorrow, Kuerten, seeded No 28, will need to be accurate with his shots when he plays David Nalbandian, seeded No 8, one of four Argentinians in the last eight, along with the third-seeded Guillermo Coria, the 22nd-seeded Chela, and the unseeded Gaston Gaudio.

By defeating Russia's Marat Safin, the 20th seed, yesterday, the 22-year-old Nalbandian completed his list of quarter-final appearances at all four Grand Slam championships (in 2002 he was the runner-up to Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon).

Beaten by Safin in their previous four matches, including the third round here in 2002, Nalbandian had a clear advantage yesterday against an opponent who called for the trainer six times to treat raw blisters on both hands. Safin survived for four sets, Nalbandian winning, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3.

With his dashing moustache and Van Dyke beard, Safin had a look of D'Artagnan. The Russian's hirsute coach, Peter Lundgren, suffering in the stands, resembled Porthos. Not much can been done for a duellist who cannot hold a sword.

"It's the first time in my life I've had blisters like that." Safin said. "I was really suffering. I couldn't do many things. I had to change the tape on my fingers all the time. I couldn't take my chances, and he was playing pretty good tennis."

Hewitt, the 12th seed, advanced to the quarter-finals for the second time, defeating Xavier Malisse, of Belgium, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6, winning the tie-break, 8-6. Hewitt will now play Gaudio, who defeated Igor Andreev, of Russia, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. Last week, Andreev was the toast of Moscow after eliminating the defending champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, of Spain, in the second round.

BRITONS WHO FLIRTED WITH GLORY IN FRANCE

Britons who have played in the men's singles quarter-finals at the French Championships since the Second World War

1959: Bill Knight lost to Nicola Pietrangeli, of Italy, the eventual champion.

1963: Bobby Wilson lost to Pierre Darmon, of France, the eventual runner-up.

1963: Mike Sangster reached the semi-finals, losing to Australia's Roy Emerson, the eventual champion.

1973: Roger Taylor lost to Ilie Nastase, of Romania, the eventual champion.

2004: Tim Henman plays Juan Ignacio Chela (Argentina) today.

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