Nobody questioned Tim Henman's right to be seeded No 4 at the Monte Carlo Open on the basis of his ranking in the ATP's rolling 12-month tournament entry system. At the same time, the natural clay-court players probably relished the opportunity of picking holes in the British No 1's attacking game.
That is not quite how things have turned out. Henman will today play his third Latin American clay-court specialist in a row. If he performs with as much self-belief and patience against Juan Ignacio Chela as he did in defeating another Argentinian, Guillermo Coria, on Tuesday, and Nicolas Massu, of Chile, yesterday, 6-1, 7-6, Henman has every chance of repeating last year's feat of advancing to the quarter-finals.
Henman, who knows better than to shout the odds, was quick to point out that Chela has dropped only four games in his opening two matches and defeated him, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, in the second round here two years ago.
"My play was pretty ordinary for a set and a half," Henman recalled. "Then I started to turn things round, and Chela looked exhausted. But I wasn't able to take advantage, and he came back strongly."
Chela reached the last 16 yesterday with a 6-1, 6-1 win against the artistic but erratic Hicham Arazi of Morocco: the man who eliminated Henman in the quarter-finals a year ago. Chela, like his compatriot Coria, served a suspension last year after testing positive for nandrolone. He quickly made up the lost ground and is currently ranked No 28 in the entry system.
Massu, ranked No 63, also defeated Henman in their only previous meeting. The surprise in this case was that the match was on a medium-pace rubberised concrete court in Adelaide last year. The surface usually suits Henman, as he showed by winning the title there in January.
"It is strange sometimes the way things unfold," Henman said. "I was just talking to [Albert] Costa in the locker-room. I beat Albert twice on clay, and he beat me on hard court and indoors. Massu beat me on hard court, I beat him on clay. This is perhaps because there is less expectation from my point of view when I'm playing on clay, and probably more expectation from their point of view. They realise that they are the favourite and could, or should, win the matches."
Massu's confidence was not helped yesterday by a sore right arm although, after an error-strewn start, he managed to play through the pain well enough to edge Henman towards a third set. The Chilean's problem was that this was not the Henman of a few years ago, who tended to flounder at the mere mention of clay. The progress Henman made here last year, added to the fact that he has at least advanced to the third round at the French Open for the last three years, enables him to cut a less vulnerable figure on the slow red stuff.
While Massu struggled for form in the first set, Henman settled smoothly into his rhythm, selecting the right shots to play and executing them with élan. The contest was in complete contrast to Henman's first-round match against Coria, in which he fought back from a set and 4-1 down and was then able to dominate the final set.
Massu was the man under pressure yesterday, and his well-being was not improved by being hit on the nose from a Henman volley on the opening point of the sixth game. "It was pretty bad, actually," Henman said. "It was certainly my intention to go at him. But to get him on the nose was tough. It was not where I was aiming, exactly. I don't think I did too much damage."
After being broken for the third time in the seventh game, Massu received treatment to his troublesome arm before the start of the second set. He then began striking the ball with at least as much power and certainly greater accuracy. Henman survived a minor crisis, saving two break points at 4-4, and pressured his opponent during the tie-break, Massu double faulting at 3-6 to lose the match.
Richard Gasquet, the 15-year-old French prodigy, was worn down by the power and experience of Marat Safin, the sixth seed. The Russian former world No 1 won, 6-4, 6-1, after saving seven set points in the first set, which took 48 minutes.Reuse content