Henman ignores rain for emphatic win

Raindrops kept falling on his head, but Tim Henman went on to achieve one of his most emphatic wins on clay yesterday and ended up as the highest seed left in the Rome Masters.

The fourth-seeded Henman's elevation came with his 6-1, 6-1 win against the Czech Radek Stepanek on a wet afternoon at the Foro Italico where the name Roger Federer, Wimbledon champion and world No 1, was added to those of earlier casualties, Andy Roddick, the second seed, and Rainer Schuettler, the third seed.

Federer, a finalist last year, lost in the second round to the former French Open champion Albert Costa, of Spain, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, raising doubts concerning Federer's ability to add the French championship to the Australian Open title he won in January.

Henman, the British No 1, advanced to the third round here for only the second time in eight appearances, having been beaten in the first round in the past two years. He lost to Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, in the third round in 1999. Today Henman is due to play Mariano Zabaleta, of Argentina, who eliminated the defending champion, Felix Mantilla, of Spain, 7-5, 6-3. Henman has defeated Zabaleta on clay in Hamburg.

Although Henman defeated Fabrice Santoro, of France, 6-1, 6-0, in the first round in 1998, the Frenchman was a reluctant entrant and played poorly. Yesterday Stepanek was as keen as Henman to make progress.

The weather was reminiscent of a frustrating day at Queen's Club, except that it is possible to continue playing in light rain on clay. The only problem was that what began as drizzle towards the end of the opening set turned into a steady downpour midway through the second set.

As long as the players were willing to carry on, the Danish umpire, Sune Alenkaer, was prepared to let them. Such was Henman's momentum that his only dread was that play would be suspended.

"I wasn't going to say anything," Henman admitted. "I looked down the other end of the court and [Stepanek] didn't look like he wanted to stop, either. I think if you would have reversed the situation, and I was down 6-1, 2-0 or something, I would have had my umbrella up on the side of the court and put my armbands on. But he didn't seem too concerned, and I was just happy to keep making his life as difficult as I could." The only danger for Henman, who did not have to save a break point until the third game of the second set, was that he would become over-anxious to finish the job. Serving for the match at 5-1, 40-30, Henman netted a forehand on the first match point and had to save two break points before converting his second match point.

Federer was irritated by suggestions that his loss to Costa after taking a three-week break had implications for his prospects on clay. "People are looking at this too dramatically," he said. "I think this is an open match on the surface. I lost to him in Miami a year ago on a hard court and here I lose to him again. I think we should respect his game a little more. For me, it's not a disaster, because I know how tough the clay court season is for me."

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