Henman humbled by brave Boutter

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Tim Henman's chances of competing in the Masters Cup in Sydney 11 days hence sank yesterday, although not quite without trace. A humiliating defeat here to Julien Boutter, a French wild card, 6-4, 6-3, put paid to Henman's qualification for the field of eight. But the British No 1 may still make it as a reserve and get to play. Injuries apart, it is possible that Andre Agassi will decide to stay home in America with his wife, Steffi, and their baby son, Jaden Gil.

Clutching at straws is one thing, relying on the whims of new parents quite another. The fact is, Henman does not deserve to play in Sydney on the evidence of his display yesterday, which was in complete contrast to the form that took him to the title in Basle without the loss of a set last week.

Boutter, a 27-year-old from Metz, is a player who goes for broke on every point. When he hits the target, he is difficult to subdue. Gustavo Kuerten, the reigning world No 1, discovered that in Basle, where Boutter extended the Brazilian's run of defeats to five in a row. Henman saw that match, and also recalled Boutter's third-round win against George Bastl: "I think he served 31 aces and 20 double-faults."

Henman's serve was so consistent in Basle that he was only broken once, by Carlos Moya, of Spain, the semi-finals. Ominously, Henman double-faulted on the first point of his opening match at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Berçy yesterday, and his serve continued to be more of a foe than a friend.

The erratic Boutter, however, was first to lose serve, broken for 3-1 on the fifth break point of the fourth game by a wonderful Henman lob. Had Henman been able to consolidate the break it is possible that he would have settled into a winning rhythm. Instead, he felt the full force of Boutter's will to please the Paris crowd, and immediately lost his advantage, being passed by a crisp, angled forehand on the third break point.

Boutter gave Henman little peace after that, breaking a second time for 5-4 and serving the set out to love. There was little between them in their first-serve percentages – except that 50 per cent is a doom-laden statistic for a player of Henman's status. Matters worsened in the opening game of the second set, Henman rescuing two points from 0-40 before Boutter broke with a mighty forehand return.

Henman briefly raised hopes of a recovery, breaking back in the next game, Boutter hitting a forehand long after Henman returned a second serve. But no sooner had Henman managed to raise his first-serve percentage to 85 than he suffered the type of nightmare that has so often been costly for him in the past.

Serving at 3-3, Henman netted what for him ought to have been a routine forehand volley, and then double-faulted on the break point. Serving to stay in the match at 3-5, he double-faulted twice for 15-40, and Boutter converted the first match point with another emphatic cross-court return. Henman congratulated Boutter, but did not shake hands with the umpire, Romano Grollotti, of Italy, who overruled a point in the first set. "It's not a rule, is it?" Henman said curtly.

Henman has yet to qualify for the year-end men's showpiece as one of the top eight players. In 1997, he had an away-day in Hanover as a substitute for a substitute, defeating Yevgeny Kafelnikov in a "dead" round-robin match before returning to win the men's singles title at the National Championships. In 1998, he reached the semi-finals in Hanover as a substitute. Moreover, he has yet to win a Masters Series tournament.

"I've got to give Julien credit for the way he played," Henman said. I had a chance early in the match, but when I wasn't able to take advantage of that, it was up to him really. I found it very difficult to have any influence in the match. He's so aggressive, so powerful with his shots. On his serve, you're just trying to do your best to get the ball back in play and see what happens." What happened was another chapter in a familiar story.