Tim Henman must rid his mind of Pete Sampras today. The great man no longer exists, at least as far as this year's tournament is concerned. Taking his place in the quarter-finals on the Centre Court is Roger Federer, the 19-year-old Swiss who slew the seven-times champion and ought to be bursting with confidence and the fearlessness of youth.
For long enough, Henman has been hearing that the day would come when Sampras did not bar his path to glory, as he did in the semi-finals in 1998 and 1999. That day is now, and the only consideration is that Federer, the Wimbledon junior champion in 1998, has suddenly become the most dangerous player in the world.
This morning, as the nation's tennis followers talk excitedly about the possibility of a British coronation next Sunday, Henman will visualise Federer on the opposite side of the net. "It's a hell of a result for Federer to beat Sampras," he said. "I've never beaten Sampras on grass. I'd be stupid to think that this is going to be some type of easy match for me, because he's probably playing as well, if not better, than anyone else."
While Federer had a day to prepare yesterday, Henman and Todd Martin finished their duel to decide who would be his opponent. Neither player had been fully fit at the start of the contest. Henman had ricked his back during practice, Martin had tweaked his left knee.
Henman was the more ill at ease on Monday evening, with both his ailment and his game, and Martin deservedly took a two sets to one lead and probably would have won had bad light not intervened. But when play resumed yesterday, the black support protecting Martin's knee looked even more ominous, and his mobility, never in the panther class, was impaired. Henman, in contrast, had sufficient spring in his step and ambition to produce his two most impressive sets of the tournament to prevail, 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
There was sunlight instead of twilight, and a cooling breeze wafted down the court from the Royal Box end as the spectators cleared their throats to urge Henman to victory, the volume of support increasing as the British No 1's performance encouraged optimism.
While there were indications of familiar inconsistency as early as the opening game of the fourth set – Henman hitting first serves to advance to 40-0, only to miss a first serve and a forehand and throw in two double faults for deuce – he finished the game with an ace to settle himself and the crowd.
Martin, taken to deuce in the fourth game, was broken for 4-2, Henman's deep returns creating the opening at 15-40. A premature roar from the stands was stifled after a Henman half-volley was called wide, but Henman's forehand return at 30-40 landed so close to Martin's feet that the 6ft 6in American almost tripped.
The only disappointment in the set from Henman's perspective was his inability to convert either set point on Martin's serve at 5-2, which would have given Henman the advantage of serving first in the final set.
Martin deserves credit for salvaging the position with a service winner and a serve and backhand volley. Henman served the set out to love after 41 minutes, and the crowd wondered if the championships would produce another drama. What they saw in the opening game of the fifth set was Martin lift his arms to the heavens in thanks after hitting a perfect cross-court backhand for 40-15.
The next time the American used his arms to express his feelings, they were spread wide in a gesture of frustration after Henman had passed him with a forehand down the line for deuce in the third game.
Not only did Martin hold serve for 2-1, he caused Henman to wobble in the next game, hitting a forehand down the line for 15-30 and raising his hopes as his opponent double-faulted to 15-40. Henman saved the break point with a volley and Martin missed an awkward backhand on the second.
That was to be Henman's only scare of the day. He broke to 15 in the fifth game, Martin hitting a backhand long at 15-40, and broke to deuce for 5-2 with a backhand down the line after Martin twice double-faulted.
Although Henman double-faulted on the first point of the concluding game, the blip merely served to calm the crowd before the celebration broke out at seven minutes past five after Martin netted a forehand from a high forehand volley.
"Fingers crossed," Henman said with a smile when it was suggested that Federer might have an adverse reaction to his big win over Sampras. "I hope so, but I think his personality is in his favour, because he's pretty relaxed and obviously confident with his game."
A colleague of mine insisted that Federer would still be on cloud nine. Please, no clouds.Reuse content