Henman passes his first test on grass

British No 1 in composed form as Sampras hits high notes and defending champion Hewitt finds rhythm
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The Independent Online

Tim Henman, Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, and a spirited cluster of corporate hospitality wild cards found their grass-court form impressively early on a sunny afternoon at the Stella Artois Championship here yesterday.

"It was good," Henman said. "It was the type of day that suits the players and the spectators and suits the thirst." The British No 1, who a year ago lost his opening match against Bob Bryan, an American qualifier, made sure that he did not suffer similarly against Cristiano Caratti, an Italian qualifier who had accounted for Goran Ivanisevic in the first round.

Henman, the fourth seed, defeated Caratti, 6-3, 6-1, after 65 minutes, breaking twice in each set, and only once had his own serve threatened, saving a break point in the concluding game.

The 31-year-old Italian has had difficulty in his maturing years as a tennis player living up to his nickname, "The Caratti Kid". On match point, one of the chattering, laughing classes, fresh from lunch, cried out: "Come on, Capriati!" Henman took it all in his confident stride.

"Hospitality is a strong point of this tournament and important to its success," he said. "I don't think I should make too many complaints, having lost four games. But I hope they're not driving back home." After dusting off the clay from the French Open, where he again reached the third round, Henman was pleased to have his feet back on familiar lawns.

Along with the other seeded players, he had been given a bye in the first round, but took care not to underestimate his opponent yesterday. Caratti, it was pointed out, was the sort of opponent who could trip you up. "I've certainly tripped over a few at this tournament," Henman responded.

Henman took the opportunity to play with a new-look, predominantly black Slazenger racket for the first time, having practised with it on American hard courts earlier in the year and while preparing for Queen's after his return from Paris. "It feels pretty good," he said. "They wanted the change, a different look in my hand. I don't think it made too much difference in the way the ball came off the racket." It will be interesting to see how well the ball comes off the strings today when Henman returns the formidable, left-handed serve of Wayne Arthurs, a 30-year-old Australian who is based in Pinner. Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, plays Vladimir Voltchkov, from Belarus, a Wimbledon semi-finalist last year.

Serving and volleying solidly yesterday, Henman was second on the Centre Court after Pete Sampras. The seven-times Wimbledon champion was a hard act to follow yesterday, defeating Olivier Rochus, a diminutive but talented young Belgian, 6-1, 6-2, after only 44 minutes.

"It was one of those days when everything kind of clicked," Sampras said.

"That doesn't happen very often in my first match. I got in a zone for a little while. I wish that happened every day, but unfortunately that's not the case. Tomorrow is a different day, a different opponent." In this case, the Dutchman Jan Siemerink, who defeated the 35-year-old Gianluca Pozzi, a semi-finalist last year, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Rochus, No 62 in the ATP entry system, managed to hit a few winning passing shots but was generally dazzled by Sampras's brilliance. "He was a little bit overwhelmed," the American said, pleased to see that his aura on grass is as strong as ever. "It helps having the reputation I have at Wimbledon," he said. "It can get me through a few matches." Hewitt, the defending champion, had not been fazed by Sampras in last year's final, and the 20-year-old Australian was off and running again yesterday, defeating the Belgian Xavier Malisse, a fellow groundstroker, 6-4, 6-3.

Malisse is coached by David Felgate, Henman's former mentor. "Malisse hit the ball deep from the baseline," Hewitt said, "and I was trying not to make too many errors. I felt I was holding up pretty well." Hewitt, the third seed, has the footwork to compensate for a lack of natural attacking ability at the net. "It helps playing a lot of Davis Cup matches," he said. "I've got grass-court play in my mind. And I like coming back to places where I've played well in the past." In the third round today, Hewitt plays Byron Black, of Zimbabwe, who grew up on grass courts.