The court known as the Pallacorda at the Italian Open here is surrounded by Mussolini's neo-classical statues in athletic pose: still-life versions of Tim Henman in his new television advertisement for Ariel washing powder. The British No 1 was certainly washed out yesterday, but still came within three points of winning a place in the second round.
Debilitated after an attack of diarrhoea overnight, Henman looked sickly before, during and after his opening match against Fernando Gonzalez, and did well to last the distance in losing, 3-6, 7-6, 6-0. The concluding set was an anticlimax, Henman's chance of victory having evaporated in the second set tie-break, before it became an effort for him to run a few yards without doubling up.
Gonzalez, who strikes every ball as if it were the last hit of his career, came to semi-prominence at the Nasdaq-100 Open two months ago, where, having qualified, he pounded Pete Sampras to defeat in the second round.
The 21-year-old Gonzalez is one of a group of Latin American competitors to have emerged recently. His style, not necessarily one copied by his peers, is to belt the ball, starting with the serve. When his shots stay within the lines they are difficult to counter. Fortunately for his opponents, he tends to be erratic. Henman, while cutting a wan figure, made the most of Gonzalez's wild play.
Showing that his recent results on clay in Monte Carlo, where he was a semi-finalist, were not a fluke, Henman survived a shaky opening game, in which he had to save three break points, and took a 3-0 lead. This was after Gonzalez demonstrated the impetuous nature of his play, double-faulting twice, once of game point, in losing the second game.
Henman, sustained by his natural talent, along with one or two tablets, went on to take the set after 37 minutes. Gonzalez, whose serving power was evident when he produced three aces and a service winner in the eighth game of the first set, dropped only three points on serve en route to the second set tie-break.
This did not deter Henman, whose first serve was working well in the circumstances, and the fifth seed from Oxfordshire took a 4-2 lead in the shoot-out. It was then that Gonzalez produced three of the most potent shots of the match – three splendid backhands, the third of which caused Henman to net a backhand volley for 5-6. Gonzalez converted the set point with an ace.
Henman had one point to take the initiative in the final set, after Gonzalez double-faulted to present a break point in the second game. The Chilean managed to save it, and Henman became wearier and wearier and wide open to his opponent's booming attacks.
Asked if he had considered giving up a lost cause, Henman said: "Not exactly. I suppose it crossed my mind. But I retired once this year, and that's enough for me." He was referring to his bad luck in Key Biscayne, when he ricked his neck when not looking where he was going while leaving the locker-room for a match against Felix Mantilla, of Spain. He won, but could not finish his next match against Roger Federer, of Switzerland.
He is not sure what caused his illness here, but said: "It decided my game plan for me – to keep the rallies as short as possible. I haven't eaten for quite some time, so I don't have a lot of energy. To tell you the truth, I felt pretty exhausted after the first game after the deuces we had."
Henman was not the only player feeling less than his best on a day of upsets, although Pete Sampras was reasonably pleased with his first venture of the season on European clay, even though he was defeated by Mantilla, 6-4, 6-7, 6-2.
"I'm very disappointed I didn't win," Sampras, the 12th seed, said. "I had a few opportunities that I didn't take advantage of, and Felix is a very strong player who hits the ball very deep, very heavy, and doesn't miss much. My serve let me down a little bit in the third set. I'll just have to go to Hamburg and try and do better next week."Reuse content