Henman finds his clay feet to scale new Paris heights

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman will break new ground here tomorrow by competing in the fourth round of the French Open for the first time, thereby following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Henry Billington, who put down his marker on the red clay of Paris in 1939, when the fourth round and the quarter-finals were one and the same.

Tim Henman will break new ground here tomorrow by competing in the fourth round of the French Open for the first time, thereby following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Henry Billington, who put down his marker on the red clay of Paris in 1939, when the fourth round and the quarter-finals were one and the same.

Not many people know that. Henman himself was surprised. "I know he made the third round at Wimbledon a few times, but I didn't know that he had such clay court prowess," the British No 1 said yesterday after giving a consummate display of attacking tennis on clay in out-playing Spain's Galo Blanco, a confirmed baseliner, 7-6, 6-1, 6-2.

At the finish, Blanco, who was also defeated by Henman in the first round here in 2002, was lost for answers but not for words of praise for his opponent. "He was unbelievable," said Blanco, whose ranking, No 95, is not a fair reflection of his expertise on clay, the sport's slowest surface. "There was nothing I could do about it," he added. "At the end of the match I shook hands with him and said, 'Thank you for the lesson.' If he continues to play like that and serve that well, nobody can beat him here. He can win Roland Garros."

Sceptics will smile wryly at that, arguing, quite rightly, that it is less likely to happen than for a former world No 1 to drop his shorts on court - which is what the Russian, Marat Safin, did during his second round match against Felix Mantilla, of Spain.

Safin was penalised a point for his unusual celebration after winning a spectacular rally at 4-3 in the fifth set before play was suspended on Thursday night. "It was a great point for me, I felt like pulling my pants down. What's bad about it?" said Safin, who went on to win yesterday, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 6-7, 11-9.

Back in 1939, Henman's grandad defeated Jozsef Asboth, of Hungary, in the third round. Asboth was good enough to go on and win the title in 1947. Six years later, when Roy Emerson was drawn to play Asboth in a clay-court tournament, the Australian asked his compatriot, Ken Rosewall, how he rated his chances. Rosewall held up four fingers and said: "That's how many games I reckon you'll win, mate." Emerson recalls that: "Kenny wasn't far off the mark." Henman, whose prescription for a viral infection amounts to playing his way through it with alacrity, has already made three opponents feverish. He has won nine sets in a row since losing his first two against the Frenchman Cyril Saulnier in the opening round.

A combination of impressive serving - he hit 19 aces in the three sets against Blanco, three in one game - fearless volleying, and an aptitude for making his opponents uncomfortable by attacking their serves and luring them off the baseline, has transformed the ninth-seed from a clay pigeon into a force to be reckoned with. His adaptation of grass-court tennis to clay has won him many new admirers.

Blanco was a formidable opponent during the opening set yesterday - and what a set it was. Both players touched peak form, with the Spaniard serving as confidently as Henman and both men testing each other with wickedly angled shots. The tie-break tuned Henman's way after Blanco netted a forehand when serving at 3-3. Henman swept up the last three points with a bold service winner on a second serve, followed by his 10th ace and a potent return of a second serve for 7-3.

Henman's tour de force in the second set ended shy of a whitewash when he was broken from 40-0 while serving for the set at 5-0, double-faulting on the first break point against his name.

Afterwards, Henman gave an interesting discourse on that game. "At 5-0, 40-0 I'd pretty much played a faultless set. Then I didn't serve and volley for the remainder of that game and next service game that I lost. Why does that happen? Because I'm not thinking. I'm thinking about how well I've played the last couple of games, how many good backhands I've hit, how well I'm serving. All of a sudden I've lost five points in a row. It's human nature, unfortunately. You can't always be totally focused. You get distracted by whatever it may be."

After Henman recovered from losing his serve in the opening game of the third set, he resumed dictating play on his terms. The 29-year-old from Oxfordshire's prospects of becoming the first Briton to reach the men's singles quarter-finals here since the Yorkshireman Roger Taylor in 1973 are promising. His next match is against Michael Llodra, an attacking French left-hander whom Henman defeated in straight sets in the second round at Wimbledon last year, their only previous contest.

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