Henman dwells on positives in defeat

Lee Hyung-Taik, a South Korean qualifier, ranked No 182 in the world, is due to play Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, in the last 16 at the United States Open today, which is Labor Day. Meanwhile, Britain's Tim Henman, like Greg Rusedski before him, has packed up and left. Such is tennis.

Lee Hyung-Taik, a South Korean qualifier, ranked No 182 in the world, is due to play Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, in the last 16 at the United States Open today, which is Labor Day. Meanwhile, Britain's Tim Henman, like Greg Rusedski before him, has packed up and left. Such is tennis.

Henman, the No 11 seed, played beautifully for the majority of the three hours and 27 minutes spanning Saturday night and Sunday morning that he spent in the Arthur Ashe Stadium battling Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, for five sets in the third round.

After midnight, however, it seemed that the 14-foot bronze statue commemorating Ashe had pilfered Henman's racket and was serving double-faults on the big points for him (as if the statue was not in enough trouble to begin with for being sculpted nude). At 1.04am, Krajicek was the victor, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, courtesy of his opponent's 17th double-fault. Such is Henman.

An encouraging summer build-up on the American concrete courts had given the British No 1 reason to believe that he could do his talent justice in New York. He had defeated Sampras for the first time - and in straight sets - en route to his first Masters Series final in Cincinnati (losing to Sweden's Thomas Enqvist), and had gone on to reach the semi-finals in Indianapolis (losing to Russia's Marat Safin).

He certainly improved on last year's embarrassing first-round defeat by Guillermo Canas, of Argentina, but ended the last of this year's four grand slam championships like the previous three, beaten in five sets. In Australia he was nudged out in the fourth round by the American Chris Woodruff. At the French Open, it was Spain's Fernando Vicente in the third round, and at Wimbledon it was Australia's Mark Philippoussis in the fourth round.

The difference here was that Henman was confident that he was ready to make a major breakthrough. Even in defeat he was able to look at the "bigger picture" and sound positive. "It hurts badly to lose," he said, "but I'm not suddenly going to start thinking the world's against me or, 'What have I got to do?' I'm going to learn from it. Likewise, when I've had some some good wins, I suddenly don't think I'm the best thing around. It's important to keep a level plane, I try to stay constant."

Henman knows from experience that playing well and losing is not going to placate his critics. "What's new?" he said defiantly. "If that's what people want to think, that's great. I'll be the first to prove them wrong.

"It's irrelevant what all these other people think. I know what I need to do. I know where I'm going. I'll achieve it."

What he intends to work on, more than other aspects of his game, is the second serve. "With my first serve, I don't think I can ask for much more," Henman said. "From how erratic I used to serve, my first serve has made huge improvements. Now I look to make those same improvements on the second serve."

Krajicek, while agreeing that Henman's serve had improved, said that it was still perceived as a potential weakness for opponents to probe. "I know he can double-fault," Krajicek said. "That's why, when he missed his first serve I moved around a little bit, wanting to show him that maybe I was going to attack his second serve. I was trying to put him under pressure so that he was going to double-fault, and he did."

Was Henman's tendency to double-fault one of the scouting notes in the locker-room? "His serve used to be more inconsistent," Krajicek said. "Today he came up with some big serves at big points. But it's tough to get rid of a name. A couple of years ago, you knew he could double-fault. And still you have the feeling that when it gets very important, sometimes you can get your bad habits back at the tightest moments."

Ominous signs that Henman might fall short were there to be read in the opening set, when Krajicek, unseeded, but fit, and potentially lethal, saved three break points in the second game and three more in the concluding game, after the Dutchman had double-faulted to 0-40. Krajicek, having broken in the third game, held on.

Henman responded by winning the next two sets, his confidence in his first serve and the consistency of his returns allowing him to produce some of the most breathtaking tennis of his career. With Krajicek, a taller model of his opponent in terms of style, also playing close to peak form, the spectators prepared for a midnight feast, and were not disappointed.

Krajicek saved a break point at 2-2 in the fourth set; Henman escaped with a deuce after double-faulting on game point at 3-2. After that, Henman paid for every dodgy delivery. He double faulted three times from 5-6, 30-0, Krajicek breaking with a spectacular backhand return to level the contest.

The balance began to shift in Krajicek's favour in the final set after he gave an awesome display of power and determination when serving at 5-5, 0-30. He won the next point with a solid serve and a fierce high forehand, and followed that with three consecutive aces.

At which point, Henman, who had held to love when serving to stay in the match at 4-5, began to unravel. He double-faulted to 15-15, was passed by a Krajicek backhand to 30-40, saved the first match point with a smash and then netted a forehand volley (a rare error with this shot) from a Krajicek return at deuce.

Match point two: Henman's first serve was long, his second hit the net.

It was all over bar the inquest.

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