Henman holds torch of nation's hopes

Tim Henman accepts that he has become the torch bearer for British sport, at least until a week tomorrow, when the nation hopes to see him compete in the men's singles final.

Tim Henman accepts that he has become the torch bearer for British sport, at least until a week tomorrow, when the nation hopes to see him compete in the men's singles final.

By symbolic coincidence, the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire will be handed the Athens-bound Olympic torch by Sir Roger Bannister on Centre Court at 11 am today and will run with it round the grounds before passing it to Virginia Wade, the last Briton to win a Wimbledon singles title, in 1977.

Henman will then prepare to play his third-round match against Hicham Arazi, of Morocco, knowing that St George is back from Portugal, free from football and keen to boost his campaign.

As usual, Henman is the last Brit standing on the courts of SW19. Greg Rusedski, his 30-year-old Davis Cup team-mate, made a valiant effort to join him on round three, but was worn down by Rainer Schüttler, of Germany, the eighth seed, 6-7, 7-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-2.

It remains to be seen if Rusedski will return to compete at the All England Club next year, but that is his intention. "I'd like to give it another year minimum," he said, Ranked fourth in the world in 1997, he is now down to 165, and needed a wild card here.

Henman, having survived another twitchy opening set before defeating Ivo Heuberger, a Swiss qualifier, 7-5, 6-3, 6-2, was asked if he thought England's loss in Lisbon would have a positive knock-on for him.

He smiled and said, "Yeah, pile it on, bring it on," adding: "It's two-fold, isn't it? You could say that the support can be even greater, if that's possible. On the other side, if England had kept winning then the spotlight, to a certain extent, would be elsewhere. I think the the bottom line is, it's going to be dictated by the way I play, and that's what I'll be concentrating hardest on."

At the same time, Henman was alert to the fact that yesterday's Centre Court spectators, if not the Henmaniacs on Henman Hill, took a while to come to the boil, as if deflated by Thursday night's football, or inhibited by the fifth-seed's tentative start to the tournament.

"For the last six or seven months," he said, "I've been relaxed and calm, showing no emotion on the court, and that's brought about some of the best results of my career. I think I had the same sort of attitude in my first-round match here [against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo]. If anything, I was not really using the slight intimidation factor of the crowd. And today was the same.

"I think they respond to the way that I am on court. If they see me walking around very calmly and not really showing any emotion, I think that sets the tone."

The tone yesterday was anxious. Surprised when Henman lost his serve in the opening game against the 137th ranked Heuberger, best known as Martina Hingis's former boyfriend, his supporters began to feel more comfortable when he broke back to 3-3. They were then nonplussed when their hero immediately lost his serve a second time.

Henman sensed the apprehension. "When I was down 5-3," he said, "I felt it was not the way it used to feel for me at Wimbledon. I felt I needed to be a little bit more animated and show a bit more emotion. From that point on, I felt my performance and the atmosphere was very different."

As regular Henman watchers know, his idea of being animated is to pump an arm if he wins a big point. That began to happen when the 28-year-old Heuberger served for the opening set at 5-4. Up to then, the Swiss had enjoyed showing the audience on the most famous court in tennis what wonderful shots he could hit as an underdog without pressure.

Suddenly, faced with the possibility of taking a set off Henman, one of the finest serve-and-volleyers left in the sport, Heuberger cracked. His timid second serve was always vulnerable, and now his solid first serve was under threat from Henman's confident returns, two of which induced errors on his backhand.

Henman made the decisive break to love in the 12th game to take the set after 51 minutes. Although Heuberger continued to trade shots with Henman, his effectiveness was reduced. Henman broke for 3-1 in the second set and for 3-2 in the third set, saving three break points in the sixth game before neutralising this particular Swiss after two hours and seven minutes.

"Yes I did watch [the England match]," Henman said, smiling. "I'm sure it was as painful for me as it was for you. Swiss referees. Swiss opponent today. Had to make sure I got some revenge."

Alan Titchmarsh, a guest in the Royal Box, looked on admiringly as Henman treated the lawn with the utmost respect, with no complaints this time about slow conditions. There were were no Tiger traps. "The courts are what they are," Henman said. "It's up to the players to adapt to them. I was the first to admit how slow it was [on Court No 1] for my first match, but there's no real point dwelling on it. There's more than one way to play on a grass court."

Rusedski, back on Court No 1 for the second day in a row, recovered from 5-2 down against Schüttler, saving three set points in the eighth game before going on to win the tie-break, 7-5. Rusedski also had two set points in the second set tie-break, only to see Schüttler convert his third to win the shoot-out, 12-10.

After Rusedski won the third-set tie-break, 7-5, his supporters had reason to hope that he was about to put his woes of the past 12 months behind him. But he called for the trainer after taking a heavy tumble in the fourth set, and though Michael Novotny did his best to revive him with vigorous treatment to his neck and shoulder, Rusedski was unable to make a strong enough challenge in the concluding sets. "Unfortunately, I just couldn't do it today," he said.

Henman, meanwhile, was thinking ahead to his match with Arazi, whom he had defeated in eight of their 11 previous matches, including a straight-sets win in the third round at Wimbledon in 2000. "He's a real shot-maker with a lot of ability," Henman said.

Watching the England match was not Henman's only viewing before he payed yesterday. He also watched a tape of his first-round match against Ramirez.

"I felt that I was trying to do a lot of the right things on grass," he said, "but I thought I was just predictable. I was serving and volleying all the time. I think when you give someone a constant target, they'll get into a rhythm. I felt I was playing a lot of what I thought were pretty good slices from the baseline. Then I saw them on TV and they just sit there. An aspect I've added to my game is to be more aggressive from the baseline to set up the rally at the net. It felt today that I was beginning to be a lot more successful with that. I need to be sharper."

The England football supporters' band is too noisy for Henman Hill, but perhaps Merton Council would allow it to psyche up the queues.


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