Henman powers his way into semi-final

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The Independent Online

From the moment that Tim Henman dashed out of his courtside chair, impatient for the fray, he looked like a man with a historic destiny. The prize was a place in the semi-finals of the French Open - something his critics never dreamed he could achieve, given the slow, demanding play here in Paris.

From the moment that Tim Henman dashed out of his courtside chair, impatient for the fray, he looked like a man with a historic destiny. The prize was a place in the semi-finals of the French Open - something his critics never dreamed he could achieve, given the slow, demanding play here in Paris.

The 29-year-old from Oxfordshire promised himself at the start of the year that he would play attacking tennis on any surface on any day, and he has been as good as his word in advancing to the last four of a Grand Slam championships for the first time outside Wimbledon.

In defeating Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, towards the end of the evening, with patches of blue holding back the dark clouds that had caused so many rain delays, Henman showed all the wiles of a player who has adjusted to alien conditions.

Sometimes there are reasons to worry about the consistency of Henman's first serve. Here, the British No 1 showed that his second serve can be a weapon rather than simply a means of getting him into the point. Chela was non-plussed by some of Henman's second deliveries.

Back in 1963 Mike Sangster, from Torquay, relied on his powerful serve to see him through to the semi-finals here. He was the last Briton to do so, and it is only fair to Henman to emphasise that he has more all-court skills than Sangster.

When his serve was not stinging Chela, Henman was punishing him with fierce drives or teasing him with crafty drop shots and lobs.

At the start of the match what distinguished the two players, both of whom wore red and white shirts and black shorts, was Chela's decision to wear a cap. It was not long before Henman's tennis ensured that there would be no confusion between himself and his skinny opponent.

While it is true that Henman's path has been strewn with much lower ranked opponents, the fact that he has twice fought back from two sets to love down erases any question about his right to be at the sharp end of the tournament.

Yesterday, Chela, the No 22 seed, represented a challenge for Henman to test himself against a player who was born to play on this surface. He did so with aplomb.

Henman broke in the opening game of the match, and never let up. Even his errors were born of the desire to go for his shots rather than attempt to slug it out with a natural baseliner. His reward was to break again for 5-2, and although he had to save two break points serving out the set, he did so after only 30 minutes.

In the second set, Henman again broke Chela in the opening game - only to double-fault in the next game to bring them level. If Chela imagined this was his moment to capitalise, he was quickly disabused. Henman broke again in the third game, hitting two breathtaking backhand drives down the line. Henman's volleying, from all angles, short or deep, made Chela shake his head in disbelief.

After saving a break point at 4-3 with a serve and an audacious drop shot, Henman went on to take the set with comparative ease. Henman was so much in control after that, there was little danger of Chela making the sort of comeback that Henman did against two Frenchmen, Cyril Saulnier and Michael Llodra.

Broken midway through the third set, Chela briefly threatened to extend the match as Henman began to serve it out at 5-4 but the Briton erased a two-point deficit to finish the job with a high forehand volley.

There can be no doubting the pedigree of the man he plays in the semi-final on Friday. The third-seeded Guillermo Coria has one of the best records on clay. Last year here his footwork dazzled Andre Agassi, and everybody except the Dutch were surprised when he lost in the semi-finals to an inspired Martin Verkerk.

While Henman was competing with Chela on Court Philippe Chatrier, Coria was involved in what many believed would be the match that produced the champion. Coria proved too good for the fifth-seeded Carlos Moya, of Spain. Moya, a former French Open champion and former world No 1, was defeated 7-5, 7-6, 6-3.

There was a little cameo in the interview room here a couple of days ago when Henman, who had been called to give his post-match press conference, saw that Coria was still talking to an Argentinian television interviewer. Henman leaned against a post while Coria finished his chat, then said "well done" as they passed.

It would be astonishing if Coria turns out to be the one saying "Well done'' to Henman after Friday's match. But everyone in British tennis - from the Wimbledon and Lawn Tennis Association officials who watched his match last evening, to the Henmaniacs who populate Centre Court or Henman Hill - can already congratulate him on a wonderful effort.

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