Henman finds Stepanek is a pain in the neck

Radek Stepanek, a 26-year-old Czech, fleet of foot and fast of hands, completed the double against the British No 1 at the Madrid Masters yesterday, though he rolled his head so much to ease the pain that it was a wonder it did not fall off.

A three-set win against Henman in the second round in Vienna in the early hours of last Thursday helped to raise Stepanek's ranking to No 14 in the world, and his 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 victory in the second round here yesterday will nudge him towards the top 10.

When Greg Rusedski, the British No2, was beaten after three tie-breaks in the first round by Ivo Karlovic, he predicted the giant Croat would give Andy Roddick, the second seed, a hard time. He was right. Last night, the American was defeated 3-6, 7-6, 7-6. Roddick complained about line calls but the result was in his hands when he held a match point in the second set.

Stepanek is the player who was beaten by the 18-year-old Andy Murray in the second round at Wimbledon, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and had lost to Henman four times in a row before last week's match in Vienna. He also happens to be the last top-20 player to lose to Henman (Stepanek was ranked 18th when Henman beat him, 7-5, 6-3, in the fourth round in Key Biscayne, Florida, in March). So what does this say about the 31-year-old Henman? That his days as a top-flight player are numbered (he is currently ranked 26th)? He did not play badly in Vienna. Nor did he yesterday, when he was good in flashes. But every defeat increases the doubt that he will improve on his 11 ATP Tour singles titles. "I think I'm a better player [than Stepanek]," Henman said. "I don't want to sound flippant, but in the context of where I'm at, I played some good tennis today, and I came second. I'm not going to dwell on it any more than that."

Sounding upbeat has become second nature to Henman, who emphasises that he is enjoying everything about his game except the results. He says he is excited about preparing for next season after his final tournaments of the year, in Basle next week and Paris the week after.

"I want to play well the next couple of weeks," Henman said. " If I do, great. If I don't, big deal. I'm ready to wipe the slate clean. I've already got my plans in place for December. There's a five-week stretch where I've got no sponsor commitments, no disruptions."

There was a bonus for the tournament yesterday when Rafael Nadal, the 19-year-old French Open champion and world No 2 from Majorca, allayed concerns over tendinitis in his left knee by winning his opening match against Victor Hanescu, of Romania, 7-6, 6-3. Nadal also said he is committed to playing the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club for the next two years. "It is the best preparation for Wimbledon, especially to stay in the same city," he said.

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