Henman just survives but Agassi and Rusedski fall

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman, who has a viral infection, felt less than well during and after his opening match at the French Open here in Paris yesterday. But the British No 1 is in a healthier position than either Greg Rusedski, his Davis Cup team-mate, or Andre Agassi, the American tennis icon, both of whom were defeated in the first round.

Tim Henman, who has a viral infection, felt less than well during and after his opening match at the French Open here in Paris yesterday. But the British No 1 is in a healthier position than either Greg Rusedski, his Davis Cup team-mate, or Andre Agassi, the American tennis icon, both of whom were defeated in the first round.

Having looked dead on his feet on Court Suzanne Lenglen while losing the first two sets against Cyril Saulnier, of France, Henman prevailed, 4-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3. He hopes to be fit to play Lars Burgsmuller, of Germany, in the second round tomorrow.

"I got through on determination and guts," the 29-year-old Henman said after his first win from two sets down at a Grand Slam championships. "The bizarre thing is that my energy level was the same from four games into the match as it was in the fifth set. I didn't feel like it deteriorated, but I just felt pretty tired after four games."

The ninth-seeded Henman was fortunate that the 28-year-old Saulnier, ranked No 79, was unable to press his advantage beyond two sets. Two unrelated events helped Henman find his way back into the match. Firstly, with Henman leading 4-3 in the third set, Saulnier took a medical time-out after suffering from cramp in his right hand. Secondly, Henman's caution from the umpire for unsportsmanlike conduct at 6-6 after tapping a ball at a computer operative who had walked on the court to deliver a laptop to the scorers, seemed to galvanize the Briton for the tie-break, which he won, 7-2.

After that, Henman, though groggy in some games, began to look the more likely winner. None the less, he had to recover from 0-2 in the fifth set before Saulnier double-faulted on the second match point after three hours, 47 minutes.

Rusedski, lacking match-winning confidence since his acquittal after testing positive for the banned steroid, nandrolone, was outplayed by a fellow-left-hander, Fernando Verdasco, of Spain, 7-6, 6-0, 6-0.

The feeling that this is going to be Agassi's final year as a top-class competitor intensified. The 34-year-old former world No 1's failure to offer even a passible imitation of himself seemed to worry him as much as his adoring public.

It was not edifying for anybody - not even the most rabid of French spectators cheering for one of their own - to see the most magnetic player in the sport struggle to execute the most fundamental shots in his armoury en route to losing to Jerome Haehnel, a 23-year-old qualifier, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3.

The stark, sad fact is that Haehnel, the world No 271 who was taking his first step in a tournament above his usual level of ATP Challenger and ITF Futures events, was able to beat the sixth-seeded Agassi with ease. In securing victory in his first mainstream match, Haehnal denied Agassi the 800th of his career.

In sport, age is the enemy of the inactive, and Agassi simply had not prepared for the rigours of exchanging shots on the slow red clay courts here. His only match on European clay prior to this tournament resulted in a first-round defeat by Nedad Zimonjic, the Serbian journeyman who partnered Henman to the doubles title at the Monte Carlo Masters last month.

Agassi ought to have known better than to attempt a standing start, having faded in his first two French Open finals here at the dawn of the 1990s and waited until 1999 for a triumph that completed his collection of the four Grand Slam singles titles. Whatever else, it seems doubtful that he will play here again.

His last loss in the opening round at the French Open was to the emerging Marat Safin, of Russia, in 1998, an occasion when the normally flamboyant American was spirited away in a courtesy car without giving an interview. That was not the case yesterday, when Agassi was only too ready to talk through his misadventure.

"I took off the clay season," he said, "because I've always believed that clay takes more out of some people than others. And for me it's always been that way. At this stage of my career, I can't go around grinding, trying to get into matches, at the risk of expending the energies I do have."

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