Henman prepares for test of patience

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The Independent Online

The roof may be raised today: figuratively, if Tim Henman advances to the quarter-finals for the seventh time in eight years; pleadingly, if rain prevents Britain's only hope from setting foot on the court.

The phrase, "at the end of the day", has become attached to Henman, who was relieved to finish his third-round match against Sweden's Robin Soderling swiftly on Saturday, avoiding the possibility of being stranded in the twilight zone. Today his fourth-round contest against the Argentinian David Nalbandian, last year's runner-up, has also been scheduled last on Centre Court.

With a weather forecast calculated to make last week's sunshine a glorious memory, today may turn into one of those rain-delay tests of patience for competitors, spectators and television viewers alike. The longer it rains, the more time will be spent grumbling and speculating about a retractable roof on the great arena.

These days, the All England Club is less inclined to dismiss the notion, acknowledging that a roof is a technical possibility, but hesitating until they are confident that the lawn will be allowed to breathe.

"We are looking," said Tim Phillips, the Wimbledon chairman, when the subject was last broached, in May, "but plenty of years' worth of speculation are left in the story." The Henman story also needs to run and run if the British game is to emerge from the Championships with anything other than embarrassment over its dearth of talent. But the 28-year-old from Oxfordshire can only do his best to match, or improve upon, his four appearances in the semi-finals.

"Going into the Nalbandian match," Henman said. "I'm more confident than I thought I was going to be. I'm pleasantly surprised how much my form has picked up in the last two matches.

"There's a rhythm in my mind and an understanding of what I've been doing on my serve that has really helped. As everyone's said before, when you serve well it definitely has an impact on the rest of your game. I was looking at some of the stats in the match [against Soderling]. In the second set I only lost one point on my serve. When you're holding serve comfortably, then it gives you a chance to put extra pressure on you're opponent. It's important that I maintain that, because, with due respect, Nalbandian is a different class returner than the three opponents I've played."

The draw was kind enough to present the British No 1 with a lucky loser and two qualifiers to beef up his game in time for the serious business of the second week, and Henman's supporters are anxious to see if the improvement will be enough. "The reality," he said, "is that at this level it doesn't matter how you win as long as you win." A year ago, Nalbandian, playing at Wimbledon for the first time, was picked off by Lleyton's Hewitt's groundstrokes in the final, just as the Australian proved too good for Henman in their semi-final. The fact that Nalbandian has reached the second week again, albeit after an error-strewn, five-set victory against the Slovakian Karol Kucera in the third round, suggests that his performance last year was not altogether an accident.

As Henman pointed out: "People have made the final of Grand Slams as a big surprise and then come back next year and really struggled. But David's a lot better than that. He's a very good player on any surface. He's ranked quite considerably ahead of me and seeded in front of me." Nalbandian won his two previous matches against Henman, on medium-pace concrete in Toronto last August and on a faster indoor carpet in Basle in October. "The match we played in Toronto didn't sit very well," Henman said. "I had a couple of match points.

"I think I learnt a lot more from that match than the one in Basle. My shoulder wasn't very good after the Davis Cup. It was just a difficult time and not a very enjoyable time at the end of last year, because it was such a struggle physically. Taking a positive out of it, I didn't feel great, and I was still pretty close to beating him that day. OK, he beat me, but he went on to win the tournament."

What Henman may lack in terms of match play after surgery to his shoulder last year may be balanced by his overall freshness, while Nalbandian may be tired after Saturday's exertions. That said, the Argentinian managed to sound perky in his post-match interview. "I feel great," he said. "I have one day off tomorrow. That's perfect." Nalbandian serves and returns well, but he is a novice on grass compared to Henman, a splendid volleyer, as he demonstrated against the raw, young Soderling on Saturday. Henman considers the Centre Court to be a second home, whereas Nalbandian is about to pay only his second visit there.

"I think it's going to be a very close, very tough match," the Argentinian said. "It is normal if the people here are with him, so I don't care about that. I have my job to do, and that's it." Although rain delays famously sabotaged Henman in his three-day semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic in 2001, he has benefited on other occasions, notably in matches against the Americans Todd Martin and Jim Courier. "I've had plenty of experience with rain delays," he said, "and fortunately my nature is such that I don't get particularly uptight and overly nervous or frustrated about stopping during matches." Henman's wife, Lucy, and his parents, Tony and Jane, are also used to the umbrella interludes. They have shared his ups and downs while supporting him over the years. Do they also feel at home during the tournament? "Probably," Henman said. "If you're 11-all in a tie-breaker, it's still pretty nerve-racking for everyone. But, having said that, I'm so familiar with the surroundings and the routine, and I'm sure they are. They've been through the process on a number of occasions. From my point of view, I am comfortable here, and I've been in this situation before. So it helps me. But does it actually get me anything come Monday when we step on the court?" Only if his game is there.

HENMAN IN THE FOURTH ROUND AT WIMBLEDON SIX VICTORIES AND ONE DEFEAT

1996
Henman beat Magnus Gustafsson 7-6, 6-4, 7-6

And then...
Henman lost to Todd Martin in the quarter-finals

1997
Henman beat Richard Krajicek 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4

And then...
Henman lost to Michael Stich in the quarter-finals

1998
Henman beat Pat Rafter 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2

And then...
Henman reached the semi-finals, in which he lost to the eventual champion, Pete Sampras

1999
Henman beat Jim Courier 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7, 9-7

And then...
Henman reached the semi-finals, in which he lost to the eventual champion, Pete Sampras

2000
Henman lost to Mark Philippoussis 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4

2001
Henman beat Todd Martin 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2

And then...
Henman reached the semi-finals but lost to the eventual champion, Goran Ivanisevic

2002
Henman beat Michel Kratochvil 7-6, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2

And then...
Henman lost to the eventual champion, Lleyton Hewitt, in the semi-finals

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