Henman may overturn logic to make 2005 a vintage year

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The Independent Online

Whatever befalls the reigning champions, Wimbledon will bid farewell to the raining champions, Alan Mills, commander of the court covers, and Chris Gorringe, the voice of cloudbursts. With luck, clement weather will keep them occupied with their chief roles as the All England Club's referee and chief executive respectively in their retirement year, but nothing in SW19 can ever be taken for granted.

Whatever befalls the reigning champions, Wimbledon will bid farewell to the raining champions, Alan Mills, commander of the court covers, and Chris Gorringe, the voice of cloudbursts. With luck, clement weather will keep them occupied with their chief roles as the All England Club's referee and chief executive respectively in their retirement year, but nothing in SW19 can ever be taken for granted.

Although Roger Federer seems a golden shoe-in for a third consecutive men's singles title, the Swiss world No 1 knows he will have to be at his best to see off hungry challengers.

Maria Sharapova, who charmed the Centre Court crowd and millions of television viewers as she triumphed in the women's singles against Serena Williams as a 17-year-old last year, may find herself ambushed by one of half a dozen rivals.

A former player, musing about Sharapova's Wimbledon last year, said: "It was all so perfect. It reminded me of one of those old Hollywood movies. And at the finish there should have been the words, 'The End'."

This seems a particularly bleak view, although it did seem at the time that life would never be the same again for the teenaged heroine. There are such things as sequels, of course, though Sharapova may not have the leading role.

Asked yesterday to respond to Serena Williams' comment that she [Serena] beat herself last year, Sharapova said: "That match was a whole year ago. That's past. We're in the present. I really don't want to talk about last year any more."

And what of Tim Henman in his 12th attempt to win his home crown? Federer yesterday spoke of the British No 1 in the same breath as Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, his main threats. "Why not?" Federer said. "For me, Henman is one of the guys that plays best on grass. He's very experienced on the surface. It really needs a very good player to stop him."

Henman may have shown his pedigree by reaching the semi-finals four times, but, at the age of 30, logic suggests that his best opportunity may have gone - particularly when his forlorn three-day duel with Goran Ivanisevic in 2001 comes to mind.

That may be a false assumption, however. Henman, though surrounded by younger competitors who have already won Grand Slam singles titles, either here on the lawns or on concrete in New York and Melbourne, or clay in Paris, is not a doddering veteran. He has aged well.

In Henman's case, physical considerations may be less important than his psychological well-being. It does not matter how the public or the media regard his chances. It only matters how he rates them himself.

Should he negotiate his way into the second week, Henman is likely to find Sébastien Grosjean and Andy Roddick in his path to the last four. One of the few positive thoughts is that he cannot meet Lleyton Hewitt, who holds an 8-0 record against him, unless they both reach the final.

Federer, who is projected to meet Hewitt in the semi-finals, seems to have the Australian's number, and a repeat of last year's Federer-Roddick final would not be a surprise, and, given Roddick's display last year, it could be one to savour before Federer joins Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Fred Perry as a hat-trick champion.

The women's game needs a memorable Grand Slam singles final to underscore the WTA Tour's progress in terms of sponsorship this year. The ingredients look promising, and we must trust that players who have recently recovered from injuries or illnesses do not have a relapse.

Sharapova, the second seed, needs to build momentum in her opening matches to prepare herself for an onslaught in the second week, when either Justine Henin-Hardenne or Serena Williams can be expected to reach the semi-finals.

Henin-Hardenne, the French Open champion, is capable of advancing to the final, as she did in 2001, only this time with greater experience and unflagging determination.

The top half of the draw may turn on a fourth-round meeting between Lindsay Davenport, the world No 1, and the revitalised Kim Clijsters, whose victory at Eastbourne on Saturday provided further evidence of her return to form after wrist and knee injuries, Do not be misled by her seeding at No 15.

A quarter-final meeting between Clijsters and the fifth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, of Russia, the US Open champion, would reverberate round the Centre Court to judge by their blockbuster in the semi-finals at Eastbourne.

Amélie Mauresmo, a refugee from the French Open, where she was again unable to lift her game for the pleading of home supporters, has the game and the experience to advance to a third semi-final. Whether she has what it takes to deny Clijsters a place in the final is doubtful. An all-Belgian battle may be the highlight of the second Saturday, with Henin winning her fifth major championship.

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