Henman grooves return of serve for Roddick challenge

US Open: British No 1 prepares to meet one of big favourites in first round as Belgium's leading women look to stage repeat of French Open final
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The Independent Online

During a practice session here, Tim Henman paused and deliberately hit a couple of balls over the top of the Louis Armstrong Court.

To be fair, the Court of Louis is only half as high as it was in the towering days when Jimmy Connors was in his pomp, marking the United States Open's move from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows 25 years ago by becoming the only man to win the tournament on three different surfaces: grass and clay at Forest Hills and rubberised concrete at its new home.

But even in its reduced state as the second court to the sky-scraping Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was opened in 1997, old Louis presented a big enough challenge for Henman's impromptu demonstration that he, too, is armstrong.

The damaged right shoulder that cause the British No 1 to miss the start of the season after surgery and subconsciously restrained the power of his serve at Wimbledon, seems to be in better nick at the end of the summer. It will need to be if Henman is to repeat his Washington victory against Andy Roddick when he plays the American fourth seed in the opening round tomorrow night.

Henman has been working out with a variety of hitting partners, including a couple of baseliners, the nimble Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, who defeated him at Queen's Club and Wimbledon, and Andre Agassi, a 33-year-old who continues impress older and younger generations alike with his high levels of fitness and enthusiasm.

Ivan Ljubicic, the big-serving Croatian, was an ideal sparring partner for Henman as he sharpened his return of serve - Henman edged Ljubicic, 7-5 in a tie-break, in a set they played on Saturday - and the 28-year-old from Oxfordshire has looked sharp when chip-and-charging and volleying.

The Americans, and most neutrals, expect Henman to be packing his bags after the Roddick match and consider that Roger Federer, of Switzerland, the Wimbledon champion, is the only player likely to deny Roddick a place in the final, possibly against Agassi. That would provide the home crowd with a neat conclusion to the men's singles, a sense of continuity, particularly since Agassi's appearances here may be numbered.

A strong sense of nostalgia has been evoked by Pete Sampras's retirement a year after winning his 14th Grand Slam singles title, beating Agassi in the final here. Tributes will be paid to the 32-year-old Californian on Arthur Ashe Stadium prior to the evening session today.

Younger men, though not Americans, have already made their mark here in recent years, Marat Safin, of Russia, and the Australian Lleyton Hewitt had taken turns in overwhelming Sampras in consecutive finals before the great one rose again.

Safin, who has withdrawn because of a wrist injury, and Hewitt have faded into the background this season, and the 22-year-old Hewitt's loss of impetus has caused a good deal of concern. No longer the lithe dancing master who mesmerised opponents here in 2001 and at Wimbledon last year, Hewitt appears to have sulked his way into a slump.

"It's a matter of waiting to see what happens next," the sixth-seeded Hewitt said, trusting that what befalls him will not be another shock on the scale of his first-round loss at Wimbledon to the Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic.

"I feel I am practising well, and I'm used to playing on these courts," Hewitt added. "The year I won here I was No 4 seed and I had very little expectation on me of going so far. A lot of things have changed. But I put myself in the position to win then and this year is very similar to that."

Several judges reckon Hewitt has lost half a stride, which is a stride less than Sampras had lost last year according to Greg Rusedski, after the British No 2 has lost to him in the third round. The unseeded Rusedski opens against Gregory Carraz, of France. Another Frenchman, Arnaud Clement, the 31st seed, may be waiting in round two.

The past seven Grand Slam men's singles titles have been won by seven different players. The pressure is on Roddick to make it eight.

With not a Williams in sight, the women's title here is open to bidders for the first time in five years. Two Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, contested the French Open final in June, in spite of the presence of Serena and Venus Williams, and are seeded to duel in the final here.

If they do, it will be wonderful for Belgium and interesting for most of the rest of the world. But would it be a turn-off for the Americans?

The scheduling of women's singles final at the US Open has been a contention for years. It used to be sandwiched between the men's singles semi-finals on so-called "Super Saturday". The advent of the Williams sisters prompted those that run the championships (chiefly CBS television) to feature the event as a "prime time" Saturday night showpiece. Will they see it that way if the Belgians prevail?

This is not a problem for the Belgians. Clijsters would love to win the title to have a Grand Slam championship to validate her position as world No 1, and Henin-Hardenne, the French Open champion, wants to prove to herself that she can play as well here as everywhere else.

"I never played well at the US Open," Henin-Hardenne said yesterday. "I never went to the quarter-finals. I'm feeling stronger physically and mentally this year than I've been in the past. I hope it's going to be different." That may well be case.