Henman falls back down to earth

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The Independent Online

No sooner had Tim Henman stepped back on his beloved grass here yesterday than it was snatched from beneath his feet by Karol Beck, a 22-year-old Slovakian, ranked 79 in the world.

No sooner had Tim Henman stepped back on his beloved grass here yesterday than it was snatched from beneath his feet by Karol Beck, a 22-year-old Slovakian, ranked 79 in the world.

It is bad enough for Stella Artois to be upstaged by Beck's at any time, but it is harder to swallow when the sponsor's top shelf attraction goes down as well.

Worrying even more for Britain's tennis supporters, whose belief that this could finally be Henman's year to win Wimbledon was strengthened by his astounding run to the semi-finals of the French Open on the slow clay of Paris last week.

In a sense, yesterday's contest can be summarised thus: Beck - from Zvolen, via Surbiton, where he won a grass court title last week - was too sharp for Henman - from Oxfordshire, via Paris, where he won six clay-court matches - winning 6-2, 3-6, 7-6, after 74 minutes.

Henman, who twice recovered from two sets to love down to win in five sets at the French Open, was brought down to earth by a player who revelled in the opportunity to show what he could do against the world No 5, one of the few and finest serve-and-volleyers, in the swifter grass-court game.

At Wimbledon, of course, the matches are played over the best of five sets, but there is little point concerning ourselves with whether Henman would have overcome Beck in similar circumstances yesterday. The fact is that he lost a tight encounter against an opponent who earned his success, and is left short of match practice going into his most important tournament of the year.

As he contemplated 11 days of practice, with perhaps an exhibition match thrown in to get the feel, without the tension, of a tournament atmosphere, Henman remained upbeat. "I'm disappointed right now," he said, "but it the context of my Wimbledon preparation, I don't think it will have any bearing at all." The last time Henman lost his opening match at Queen's, in 2000, to Bob Bryan, an American doubles specialist, he went on to be defeated by Mark Philippoussis, of Australia, in the fourth round at Wimbledon. That was a rare dip in the 29-year-old Henman's Wimbledon chart, which includes four appearances in the semi-finals.

That is not to say that British interest at Queen's has evaporated overnight. Today the Henman mantle on Centre Court passes to two unlikely aspirants in the third round - Ian Flanagan, a Welsh qualifier, who plays the fifth-seeded Sébastien Grosjean, a finalist last year; and Jonny Marray, from Sheffield, who faces Lleyton Hewitt, the 2002 Wimbledon champion, who has won the Stella title three times.

Flanagan grabbed the headlines by defeating Philippousis on Tuesday, following that with a win yesterday against Victor Hanescu, prompting a colleague, Mark Hodgkinson, to predict an outbreak of "Flanmania". Marray, a wild card, overcame Christophe Rochus, of Belgium, in the first round and yesterday won a domestic dispute with Jamie Delgado, a qualifier, 6-4, 6-3.

While the progress of Flanagan and Marray is encouraging, Henman's early departure was the main talking point. The British No 1 was outplayed by Beck for 26 minutes, the time it took the Slovakian to take the first set with two breaks of serve.

This was followed by a hearty second set by Henman, who was able to ride his luck. Having saved a break point in the opening game, he rescued two more break points at 2-2. On the first, Henman's low volley hit the net cord and the ball took a brief stroll before dropping "dead" in Beck's court. On the second, Henman's high backhand volley landed plumb on the sideline.

Whether or not Beck could believe his eyes, he was out-thought by Henman in the next game, double-faulting to 2-4.

The final set was a joy to watch as the two men vied for control. Beck saved a break point with an ace at 4-4 and then created the first match point with Henman serving at 5-4. Henman's second serve was good enough to deny his opponent a clean return.

In the tie-break, Henman double-faulted when leading, 4-2, but had a match point with Beck serving at 5-6. The Slovakian had the audacity to save it with a drop-shot and lob. He then converted his second match point, driving a forehand return for 8-6.