Henman falls to Ljubicic in stop-start damp squib

With the exception of 5,000 frustrated spectators at the Dubai Duty Free Open, everybody in the United Arab Emirates rejoiced in the drizzle that dampened the desert here yesterday.

With the exception of 5,000 frustrated spectators at the Dubai Duty Free Open, everybody in the United Arab Emirates rejoiced in the drizzle that dampened the desert here yesterday.

When Tim Henman was asked earlier in the week if he sympathised with Greg Rusedski, who not only lost a close first round match against him but is perceived as the less popular of Britain's two representatives, he said: "That's like blaming me for the weather."

Henman spoke too soon. Yesterday he must have been weary of light-hearted accusation of bringing Wimbledon's summer rain to the region, though Alan Mills, the All England Club's referee, had to put up with similar leg-pulling on arriving in the city to officiate at the women's tournament, due to start next Monday.

Only one of the men's quarter-finalists was able to rest easy. Tommy Robredo, of Spain, dodged the rain drops long enough to defeat Nicolas Kiefer, of Germany, 6-4, 6-4. Robredo, the fifth seed, is due to meet Henman or Ivan Ljubicic, of Croatia, in the semi-finals.

Either way, when the time comes, Robredo will have to beat one of them for the first time in his career. Henman has defeated him three times, Ljubicic once.

Henman has a poor record against Ljubicic, having lost three of their previous four matches, the Briton's only success coming in Rotterdam in 2002. Going into yesterday's match, the Croatian was assuredly the man in form. He had played back-to-back finals in Marseilles and Rotterdam in the previous two weeks, and led Roger Federer 4-2 in the final set tie-break in the Rotterdam final, only for the Wimbledon champion to overhaul him, 7-5.

But all that concerned Henman and Ljubicic yesterday was when they would get to finish their match. They were on and off the court six times before completing the opening set, which went to Ljubicic, 7-5.

They managed to play 18 minutes before the first rain delay, which lasted for two and a half hours, and then came back to exchange shots for 29 minutes. In between, the pair managed three fleeting warm-ups without playing a point.

During the mopping-up operations, the crowd saw more towels than in an average Rusedski match, and a machine was brought on court to blow hot air through plastic tubes.

At the sixth time of asking, Ljubicic, serving at 5-5, deuce, after the second delay, lured Henman into netting a backhand and then hit an ace for 6-5. Henman followed that with a sloppy service game, slipping from 30-0 to 30-40, with a double-fault, and netting a forehand after Ljubicic returned a second serve on set point.

It seemed like an age since Ljubicic had saved two break points at 2-2 and Henman had saved three from 3-4, 0-40.

Henman refused to be rattled after losing the piecemeal opening set. He successfully attacked to break Ljubicic in the first game of the second set and also had chances for a second break at 2-0.

It was not long, however, before it became apparent that Henman's inability to capitalise on his lead would prove costly. Ljubicic broke back for 3-3, and although Henman managed to take the next game to deuce, Ljubicic held for 4-3.

Henman kept himself in contention, holding for 4-4, at which point rain sent the players back to the locker-room once again. They returned for a seventh time - the final time for Henman, who was broken in the 10th game to lose the match, 7-5, 6-4. So once again he has failed to advance beyond the quarter-finals in the desert.

With Andre Agassi and Roger Federer still waiting to start their quarter-finals against Nikolay Davydenko and Mikhail Youzhny respectively, the tournament, which had been blessed with a series of thrilling contests, has been thrown into chaos, with the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final to be completed by tomorrow night. Meanwhile, the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, prepare to take centre stage next week.

A few years ago, after a desert storm, play was stopped until locusts were cleared from the court. Happy days.

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