Henman facing ultimate test of clay credentials

The question, which has caused barely-stifled laughter from one or two Hispanic players at the sharp end of the French Open here at Roland Garros, is this: can Tiger Tim escape the Hand of Guillermo? In normal circumstances, the answer would be an unequivocal no. On the surface, today's semi-final between Tim Henman, the quintessential British serve-and-volleyer, and Guillermo Coria, one of three Argentinians in the last four and currently the world's finest exponent of clay-court tennis, seems to be a total mismatch.

Coria, the third seed, has lost only one of his last 36 matches on clay, the sport's slowest surface, and that was to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, the Wimbledon champion and world No 1, in the final of the recent Hamburg Masters. The diminutive 22-year-old from Rufino has not dropped a set in his five matches en route to his appointment with Henman.

Henman, the ninth seed, whose reputation has been built on four semi-final appearances on Wimbledon's lawns, his favourite surface and the sport's fastest outdoors, had not advanced beyond the third round at the French Open until this year.

But circumstances are not normal. Henman no longer resembles the newly-born Bambi when he steps on a clay court. A semi-finalist at the 2002 Monte Carlo Masters, where he has also twice reached the quarter-finals and twice won the doubles title, he now has the confidence to rely on his natural attacking game rather than compromise himself by holding back and attempting to out-rally the experts.

The counter-punching Andre Agassi confounded regular tennis observers by winning his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 1992, having lost two consecutive French Open finals and losing again on his favourite concrete courts at the US Open. Henman's startling progress here is the reverse of Agassi at Wimbledon 12 years ago, although even Henman's most optimistic supporters will be staggered if the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire reaches Sunday's final.

While excitement has built up around him - and the majority of neutrals would be pleased to see the lone ranger out-pace the three amigos - Henman has managed to stay comparatively low key. "I've been playing well. I feel in good shape. I'll be ready to come back and try and go through it again. As I've said all along, why stop now?" Coria was not one of the Hispanic players giggling at the thought of his falling to Henman. "He is a player everybody respects," he said. "I'm very confident, but I know that against Henman I could lose and I could win. I'm going to have to play my best tennis. In the second round I played against [Mario] Ancic [of Croatia], who more or less plays the same style of tennis as Henman. I played Henman in Rome and in Cincinnati last year, so he knows me and I know him."

Henman is unlikely to forget the reason why he played badly in losing to Coria in their last match on clay, at last year's Rome Masters. Henman's wife, Lucy, and their infant daughter, Rosie, were with him, and Rosie was making a lot of noise in her sleep. So Henman decided to use ear plugs he had been given on the flight to Italy.

He slept peacefully, but felt "a bit wobbly" on waking, and his condition did not improve on the practice court. He thought he would feel better in the match, once the adrenaline started to flow. But he was exhausted after only three games.

"I went back to the hotel and thought I would be fine after a good night's sleep," Henman recalled. "I jammed the ear plugs in again and slept well. But when I woke up in the morning, I felt even worse." The doctor asked Henman if he had problems with his ears. "I told him I didn't," Henman said, "but the doctor checked - and discovered I had damaged my middle ear."

Fortunately, Henman's disorientation did not last long. A week after the Rome tournament, he competed at the Hamburg Masters and found to his joy that he could serve without even a twinge of pain for the first time since his operation at the end of 2002.

Since then we have seen Henman unplugged.

Henman V Coria head to head

2002: Monte Carlo Masters, clay, first round: Henman 6-7, 7-5, 6-1.

2003: Rome Masters, clay, first round: Coria 6-2, 6-1.

2003: Cincinnati Masters, concrete, first round: Coria 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

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