Ambitions of better times for British tennis at the US Open were torpedoed last night when Tim Henman slid to a defeat which was as embarrassing as it was deserved. There was irony, too, in the fact that the man who beat him over five sets, Belgium's Xavier Malisse, is coached by David Felgate, who tutored Henman through virtually all his professional life.
The ninth-seeded Henman laboured for three and three-quarter hours against an opponent ranked No 43 in the world and still came up short, beaten 6-7 6-3 7-5 4-6 6-4 in the third-round match regarded by some as a formality before his eagerly anticipated fourth-round clash with Greg Rusedski who did not actually get that far either. It was not a day for pre-planned scenarios. Players can have good and bad days, and for Henman it was a bad, bad day. Likewise for Rusedski, who lost in ill-tempered fashion to the Argentine Mariano Zabaleta 6-7 6-4 7-5 7-6.
Henman's serve was so lacking in authority that he committed 14 double faults and managed only four aces; he chose to rally with a skilled baseliner; he failed to dominate from the net and was, therefore, on the back foot most of the time. Most sinful of all, he clocked up 68 unforced errors. Henman was even a touch fortunate to win the opening set, fighting off a set point in the tie-break before three successive Malisse efforts which ended in the netting put the British player in front after 63 minutes.
From there the road led downhill. Henman was broken, for the third time in the match, to go 3-5 behind in the second set and Malisse served out shakily to level the match, having dropped only six points on serve in the set. From starting the match hardly able to direct a first serve into court, the 21-year-old Belgian was now dictating the course of the contest.
Twice he nosed ahead on service breaks in the third set. Both times Henman battled back to draw level, but when he was broken yet again to fall 5-6 behind, the British No 1 had no answer as his opponent served out to love to move two sets to one in front.
With the match drifting out of reach, Henman opted for a change of tactics. The advice from his new coach, Larry Stefanki, had been to go for placement rather than pace on his first serve. This tactic had been thrown back in his face by Malisse, so he upped the pace of the serve and saw reward, holding steady in the fourth set and breaking Malisse in the 10th game to take it.
Now there seemed purpose in Henman's stride and nervousness in Malisse's eye. The Belgian double-faulted to drop serve, Henman went 3-0 in front and a British victory, against the run of play, suddenly seemed assured. Instead Malisse, watched approvingly by Felgate, took apart the coach's former pupil, sweeping six of the next seven games. He broke Henman to love and with disdain at one stage.
It was a wretched day for Tim, as he acknowledged. "From the first game today it was a struggle," he said. "Things weren't happening easily for me. I never felt comfortable on my serve. I didn't have a great deal of rhythm and in such windy conditions it was difficult to take risks."
Rusedski's demise was depressingly similar to Henman's. The left-hander's big serve was not cranking as efficiently as usual, which meant trouble against Zabaleta, one of those lumberjack clay-court experts who was born to run and rally. Having taken the first set on one of his trademark tie-breaks, Rusedski was never able to impose serve or size on the smaller South American.
Rusedski battled, as he always does. In the fourth set he saved a succession of break points and managed to prolong it into another tie-break. But here again he had a nightmare, shrieking against perceived poor line-calls and the failure of the umpire to spot net cords. Finally, he was given an official warning for an audible obscenity. Not so, yelled Greg in vain, complaining he had merely been saying fush or fuzz or some such mild word. Not Rusedski's day, either. Nineteen aces but a dozen double-faults and 43 unforced errors.
But it was decidedly Pete Sampras' day. The four-time US champion, seeded only 10th this year, moved smoothly into the last 16 by defeating Russia's Mikhail Youzhny 6-3 6-2 6-2. He was joined there by the second seed, Andre Agassi, another straight- sets winner over Ramon Delgado, while Switzerland's Roger Federer struck 11 aces as he put away Holland's Sjeng Schalken 6-4 7-5 7-6.
There were ongoing weekend rumblings following Lleyton Hewitt's Friday victory over the black American wild card, James Blake, in which the Australian was accused of making racist comments. Hewitt was picked up by courtside TV microphones complaining to the umpire about two foot-faults. First, he pointed to the linesman concerned, also black, saying: "Look at him, mate." Then he pointed at Blake and added, "Look at him, you tell me what the similarity is." Hewitt insisted later, "I come from a multicultural country, I'm not racist at all. What was said was between me and the umpire in the heat of a tennis match. I treat everyone as an equal. Race has got nothing to do with it." Blake, who went to Harvard University, conceded Hewitt's remarks had "bothered me a bit" but explained: "I'm generally a positive thinker, I give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes maybe too much."Reuse content