Andre Agassi is back on top of the tennis world, and Tim Henman is showing signs of settling more comfortably in his own corner of it. Both men advanced to the semi-finals of the Stella Artois Championships here on a day that saw the departure of Lleyton Hewitt, the title-holder for the past three years.
Hewitt's loss to Sebastien Grosjean, the French sixth seed, 6-3, 6-4, means that the 33-year-old Agassi, a 6-4, 7-5 winner against Xavier Malisse, of Belgium, will replace Hewitt as the world No 1 and be seeded No 1 for Wimbledon a week next Monday.
Henman, who had to save a match point in his opening contest against Davide Sanguinetti, of Italy, and then muddled through his third round match against Cyril Saunier, of France, displayed greater authority and consistency yesterday in defeating Saunier's compatriot, Anthony Dupuis, 6-1, 6-4, in the quarter-finals.
"It's a big step in the right direction," Henman said. It is a timely step, too, if the British No 1 is to complete a tricolour of victories when he duels with Grosjean today for a place in the final. Henman has finished runner-up here for three of the past four years. He has beaten Grosjean in three of their four previous matches.
It is the second time this year that Agassi has overtaken Hewitt as No 1. He eclipsed the Australian after winning the Houston tournament in April, becoming the oldest No 1 since the ATP rankings began in 1973. Prior to that, Hewitt had been No 1 for 75 consecutive weeks. He supplanted Agassi again after two weeks.
Agassi, who has only been seeded No 1 at Wimbledon once before, in 1995, was surprised to hear that yesterday's results put him ahead of Hewitt again. "Oh, I am?" he said. "That's nice, but I'm more concerned about being No 1 in my match tomorrow." He plays a fellow American, Andy Roddick, who defeated his compatriot Taylor Dent, 6-3 7-6.
Hewitt, asked about being seeded No 2 to Agassi at Wimbledon, said matter-of-factly, "One's at the top, one's at the bottom." Was it not a matter of pride? "I couldn't care less." Nor did Hewitt fret about falling short of becoming the first player ever to win the Stella four years in a row. "Three in a row at this place is not bad," he said. "Last year's final [against Henman] could have gone either way at 4-3 in the third [set]." There was a certain symmetry to the end of Hewitt's run of success - 17 matches in four years at Queen's, and 17 matches on grass courts since defeating Grosjean in the Davis Cup final in Melbourne in December 2001.
"I would have preferred to get more matches under my belt," the 22-year-old Australian said, "but I have a bit over a week to practise and work on some areas of my game. I don't think I returned that well, and I didn't serve well in a couple of games. I can't remember, since I've been in the top 10, the last time I've lost my serve when I've been 40-0 up." Grosjean, the first to lose serve, for 1-2 in the opening set, immediately had Hewitt at 0-40 in the fourth game. The Australian clawed back five break points before Grosjean converted a sixth. The 25-year-old from Marseille broke for 4-2 after a game of thrilling rallies, and served out the set after 43 minutes.
In the second set, Grosjean broke for 3-2 and held two break points for 5-2, only for Hewitt to fight back to 4-4. The Australian, as Grosjean acknowledged afterwards, then showed signs of tiredness, a cumulative effect of two tough matches in the previous rounds, and the Frenchman broke decisively for 5-4.
An Australian colleague, Alan Trengove, observed that the 5ft 9in Frenchman, who wore his cap back to front with the peak turned up, was like Napoleon Bonaparte with a racket. In view of all the air strikes in Paris, it's a wonder he did not arrive at Waterloo by Eurostar.
Hewitt, who is susceptible to viral infections, said he "felt pretty good" about his state of health, and was looking forward to defending the Wimbledon title. "Anyone who walks into Wimbledon gets the buzz of the tradition," he said.
Last August, Hewitt walked into Flushing Meadows, New York, to defend the title he won by beating Pete Sampras in straight sets in 2001. "There was a lot of talk about being the defending champion," he said. "After that it was just like going into any other Slam. A semi-final the year after winning it was a pretty good effort."
Grosjean, who missed the grass court season last year because of injury, has been practising here since losing in the second round at the French Open in Paris. He is able to adapt his ground-strokes to all surfaces, and three years ago won the pre-Wimbledon grass court tournament in Nottingham, overcoming opponents as adept on the surface as Wayne Arthurs, Wayne Ferreira, Jonas Bjorkman and Byron Black