Henman humbled by unseeded Bjorkman

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The Independent Online

A cross-court forehand whistling past Tim Henman at 3.20pm yesterday extinguished hopes of a first British man to win a Grand Slam for 64 years, but two spectacular points won by Jonas Bjorkman in a drama-laden tiebreak were the seeds of Henman's crushingly disappointing rout at the Australian Open.

After an inspired performance against his countryman, Greg Rusedski, the British No 1 went down in straight sets to the unseeded Swede, demonstrating once again his brittleness on the big stage. With the draw wide open, there was everything to play for, but instead he clung to his record of fourth-round exits from every major tournament outside Wimbledon.

While there was a depressing sense of déjà vu in the timing of Henman's 6-2, 7-6, 6-4 loss at Melbourne Park, nobody could fault the dazzling tennis produced by Bjorkman, a doubles champion experiencing a renaissance as a singles player after slumping from world No 4 five years ago to No 64.

As ever, Henman said he would extract lessons from the defeat, but time is running out for him to learn from his mistakes. The 27-year-old from Oxford, who at No 6 had been the top surviving seed, said: "It's pretty frustrating, it's disappointing, but I can't lay the blame anywhere else. I was the one who didn't execute the shots as I should have done. In all honesty, I got beaten at my own game. In most areas, we play a similar sort of game and he was better than me. He served better, he volleyed well, he was quicker."

Nerves cracking under the weight of a nation's expectations, Henman got off to an execrable start in the match, which was played on Rod Laver Arena in suffocating heat. He opened with a double fault and lost three consecutive service games, giving Bjorkman – whom he broke once – a 4-1 lead. It was 19 minutes before the Briton appeared on the scoreboard, and 39 minutes before he finally held serve. He saved two set points against his serve at 5-2, only to watch the Swede close out the set in the subsequent game.

Emboldened, perhaps, by a fan who implored him to "do it for the Queen", Henman reasserted himself in the second set but failed to serve it out at 5-4. He fought his way to a 6-5 lead in the tiebreak; however, Bjorkman stole the set point with a series of lightning volleys and an astonishing return of a smash, then hit a service winner to take the set.

From then on, Henman – who has only once, against Slava Dosedel in a Davis Cup tie in 2000, recovered from being two sets down – played without conviction or resolve. He saved four match points in the third set, but it was only a matter of time before Bjorkman, cheered on by a noisy group of Swedish fans, sewed up the match.

The 29-year-old Swede, a famously ferocious returner of serve and the world's top-ranked doubles player, was ecstatic about reaching his first Grand Slam quarter-final since 1998.

"It's a great feeling right now," said Bjorkman, who will play Thomas Johansson in an all-Swedish encounter tomorrow. "I felt that no matter what Tim did, I was there and ready to hit the ball. Once I got through the second set, I felt very confident. I probably haven't played this well since 1997, and I think I'm playing better now than at that stage. For me, this is my best Grand Slam and it's nice to be back. I'm thrilled at the moment. I'm very excited."

Henman, who had an eight-match winning streak and a title from the Australian Hardcourt Championship in Adelaide, had rated his chances of a Grand Slam breakthrough here. "I certainly had high expectations for myself," he said. "Why wouldn't I? The way I've been playing, I did well in Adelaide and backed it up in the first three rounds. I felt very confident coming in, but I was under no illusions. I certainly don't have any right to win the match. I've got to go out there and prove it, and I didn't do that today."

Henman's defeat left only three top 10 seeds in the tournament: Tommy Haas, the No 7; Pete Sampras, the No 8; and 9th-ranked Marat Safin. Jiri Novak, of the Czech Republic, and Austria's Stefan Koubek will meet in the quarter-finals after beating Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia and Chile's Fernando Gonzalez respectively yesterday.

Koubek, the world No 65, said: "It's kind of a strange Grand Slam. All the big seeds are out. It's strange, but it's good for the players that are still in. If it would be my moment [to win], I would be very happy."