Henman goes to the brink before claiming place in quarter-finals
Monday 31 May 2004
A sensitive soul, Michael Llodra is remembered for kneeling down on the court and giving a blessing to a mynah bird he accidentally killed with one of his drives during a doubles match at the Australian Open. Yesterday, leading Tim Henman by two sets to love, Llodra may have imagined he was about to bag a clay pigeon. But Henman is a rare bird these days, and lived to fight another day.
That will be tomorrow, when the British No 1 is due to compete in his first Grand Slam singles quarter-final outside Wimbledon and become the first Briton to play in the last eight of the men's singles on the slow red clay here at the French Open since Roger Taylor in 1973.
Henman's maternal grandfather, Henry Billington, also reached the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, in 1939, when the draw was 64, half its current size. Billington lost to the American Elwood Cooke in straight sets. The 29-year-old Henman, seeded No 9, will attempt to improve the family record when he plays Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, against whom he has a 1-1 record on clay, having defeated him in Monte Carlo in 2002 after losing to him there two years earlier.
Yesterday Henman saved a match point against Llodra at 4-5 in the fifth set a game in which Henman double-faulted three times. A forehand pass after a second serve lifted the crisis, and Henman did not drop another point in his three service games that followed, en route to winning 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 9-7 after four hours and 10 minutes.
So, for the second time in the tournament, Henman prevailed from two sets to love down something he had not done before in 110 Grand Slam matches. Another Frenchman, Cyril Saulnier, led Henman by two sets to love in the first round from which point the Briton won nine sets in a row before running into Llodra.
A wild card, ranked No 94 in the world, Llodra is one of the world's best doubles players, his partnership with his compatriot, Fabrice Santoro, having yielded the Australian Open title for the past two years. An attacking player, like Henman, Llodra helped create an unusual spectacle for a capacity 10,018 spectators on Court Suzanne Lenglen yesterday, as the two serve-volleyers built high drama from short points. As Henman said: "They've probably seen more volleys in that match than they've seen in the rest of the tournament."
The problem for Henman was that the left-handed Llodra was producing the majority of the winners in the opening sets when he was able to hit the ball with his racket strings instead of the frame, that is. "His style is awkward," Henman said. "He's pretty flashy. He hits such great shots, and then he can miss."
On this occasion Henman was hit-or-miss too. "My big focal point is my commitment to my style," he said. "For an hour and 49 minutes I was playing the wrong way. That's not a great sign, but to come through a match like that and find a way to win is character-building, that's for sure."
Although Henman recovered from 2-5 to 5-5 in the first set, he double-faulted on the sixth point of the tie-break and lost the shoot-out 7-2. Llodra broke in the opening game of the second set and served away a break point at 5-4. Then the match proper began. Henman recovered from a break down at 2-3 to take the third set, and saved three break points at 2-2 in the fourth set to crack Llodra's serve for 4-2.
Henman appeared to have taken control after winning the opening two games of the final set, but became tentative again after Llodra snatched the opening point of the fourth game by returning the second of two Henman smashes with what Henman called "a fluke, one-in-a-million shot" that found the far line. Henman went on to double-fault on break point. Llodra's reprieve prompted another round of the Mexican wave from the crowd.
Play remained on serve, though Henman's nightmare serving at 4-5 allowed Llodra a glimpse of the last eight with a match point that forced Henman either to get his act together or pack his bags and head for the London grass courts.
Henman's returns were as galvanised as his serves by the time Llodra stepped up to serve at 7-7. The Frenchman salvaged only one point before hitting a backhand long as Henman made the decisive break.
After Henman advanced to the fourth round on Friday with an impressive straight sets win against a Spanish clay-courter, Galo Blanco, your correspondent asked him if people back home in England would be worried that his progress here may sap his energy before Wimbledon, particularly since he has a viral infection.
"Probably," he said, smiling. "You can never complain about winning. We're talking about a Grand Slam here. I'm happy to stay as long as I can. The way that I adapt and the way that I feel on a grass court, it doesn't take me long to feel pretty comfortable."
With regard to Chela, Henman said: "In all honesty, it's a little bit more of a straightforward match. I've seen him play some of his matches here, and he's not going to be coming to the net a great deal. That gives me a great chance to dictate, but I've got to commit to that." Henman has been in the game long enough to know that no quarter is ever given.
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