Henman looks for early form ahead of Australian Open

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The Independent Online

Football managers tend to dread the OBE, which too often in their case means, "out by Easter". Tim Henman, Britain's finest tennis player, is delighted with his award but he just wishes that it had not been soured by a leak suggesting it was given "to add interest" to the New Year's honours list.

As he prepared here yesterday for his first match of 2004, at the Exxon/Mobil Qatar Open, Henman said: "Because it's an enormous honour to receive an award that you've never even dreamed of, it's a little disappointing that one Sunday morning it's all over the papers." The 29-year-old added: "I certainly never set out to receive an award like this. You have plenty of dreams and aspirations on the court."

Four times a Wimbledon semi-finalist and the winner of 11 ATP Tour titles, including the Paris Masters last November, Henman has been reassured by messages of congratulations ahead of his visit to Buckingham Palace.

One, on his website, was from a church bellringer named Wendy, who wrote: "You have been an inspirational 'interest' all year. As we bellringers at St Mary's, Addington, say, 'may all your courses run true'." Henman, twice a finalist on his three previous visits to Doha, is due to play David Sanchez, of Spain, a solid baseliner, for the first time in the opening round tonight. Although Paul Annacone, Henman's recently appointed part-time coach, is not here with him, they will keep in touch by telephone.

"It's about getting the balance right," Henman said. "That's what I'm excited about. Paul is going to be in Melbourne next Monday. So I play this event and then we will meet up and have a good practice week [before the Australian Open]. He'll stay as long as I'm involved in Melbourne."

A splendid finish to last season enabled Henman to end his campaign ranked No 15 in the world. With no points to defend in the early part of this season, because at this time last year he was recovering from shoulder surgery, Henman is in a position to make substantial gains.

At the same time, he is determined not to put too much pressure on himself. "It will be tough come my first round," Henman said. "None of us have played for nearly two months. The thing that I tried to learn from Paris washow calm and relaxed I was on the court, and [that] I had a clear game plan. In the past I have been guilty of trying too hard.

"I've just got to say, 'this is the way I want to play, this is the right style of play, and I'm just going to let it happen.' However, if you get involved in a big match, it's not easy to stay relaxed."

With little to lose in Paris, and urged by Annacone over the telephone to be more aggressive with his serve, Henman beat Gustavo Kuerten, the three-times French Open champion, Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, and Andy Roddick, the United States Open champion and world No 1, en route to the title. Here, Roddick, the top seed, is in the opposite half of the draw to Henman, seeded seven.

Henman is keen to hear details of plans for a retractable roof on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, due to be revealed at the All England Club tomorrow. "If they have got the technology then I wouldn't be against it," he said. "I used to be against the roof but I've seen it at the other tournaments and I think for the spectators and the TV it's important to keep the show rolling."

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