Henman prepares to return fire against the cannon from Croatia

Mario Ancic, a Croatian who today stands tall between Tim Henman and a fifth men's singles semi-final, reads law books while some of his fellow players are on Playstation. During a break at the Australian Open last year, the 20-year-old Ancic, offered a choice between visiting an amusement park or a Salvador Dali exhibition, went for the surreal.

Mario Ancic, a Croatian who today stands tall between Tim Henman and a fifth men's singles semi-final, reads law books while some of his fellow players are on Playstation. During a break at the Australian Open last year, the 20-year-old Ancic, offered a choice between visiting an amusement park or a Salvador Dali exhibition, went for the surreal.

No doubt Ancic is familiar with the melting clocks in Dali's The Persistence Of Memory, which call to mind a Centre Court Rolex at the end of a Henman campaign.

As Henman readies himself for his eighth quarter-final on the lawns, the nation's tennis enthusiasts prepare themselves for another bumpy ride, crossing their fingers that the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire will at least advance to the final before time winds down his career.

The mood is catching. "It's getting emotional for me, watching Tim Henman," said Boris Becker, who has gloried in three Wimbledon triumphs and is here for the Beeb. "We kicked off EastEnders," Becker added, as if he were a regular in the Queen Vic. "I didn't know until last night how important EastEnders was to English television viewers. Even though you have to be balanced commentating on a match, at the end of the day you still hope that Tim's going to get one more. It makes the whole thing better."

John McEnroe, another three-times champion now figuratively talking into Dan Maskell's microphone, said: "Henman could be a programmer for BBC TV. He's doing an excellent job, and the rating must be very good right now." Before stepping into the commentary box yesterday, McEnroe, 45, and Becker, 37, were spokesmen at the launch of a rankings sponsorship by Stanford Financial Group for the seniors' Delta Tour of Champions, their current hunting ground, with a finale at the London Masters at the Royal Albert Hall next November.

We wanted to know how they rate Henman's chances this week. "Well," said McEnroe, "he struggled in his first three matches. He wasn't playing up to his capabilities. But I think he did yesterday [against Mark Philippoussis]. It would have been nicer for him had he done it easier, but then it wouldn't be Tim Henman if he had. He always seems to be a rollercoaster.

McEnroe added: "I give credit to Philippoussis, because he got a real tough couple of calls, one of which may have cost him the second set. He managed to persevere, and the level of his play improved as the match went on, and it was a great experience even being on that Centre Court.

"Ancic is dangerous. He beat Federer here two years ago. And he didn't have to play that long [in his last match, against Xavier Malisse]. He only played a set and a half, so he's going to be fresher physically. I would pick Tim to beat Ancic, but he better be ready and be careful."

One optimist, skipping two rounds, asked Becker if Henman could beat Federer. "That's not the point right now," Becker reminded the questioner. "Tim is playing better against opponents when he's not supposed to win, and obviously he struggled in the first couple of matches. But, then, Henman is not a No 1 player in the world. He doesn't have the game to blow away opponents. He doesn't have the 135mph serve, so he has to find a way to win the points, and the games and eventually the match.

"But he has proven in the past, and not that long ago, that he's able to beat a Federer and a Roddick. Tim's problem is to get to the semi-finals without losing too much energy. Certainly, the fourth-set tie-break win [against Philippoussis] helped him to have a day off to get his juices back and his energy level back to play a tough quarter-final against Ancic, where Tim is the favourite. And we have known in the past that Tim always struggled when he was supposed to win fairly easy."

Henman views Ancic as a Philippoussis type: "He's a big guy, big serve, likes to come forward. I've got to continue the good things I did, make him play a lot of balls on the returns and take care of my own serve. I think I've got a good chance the way I'm playing."

All eight contenders - Henman, Ancic, Andy Roddick, Sjeng Schalken, Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Sébastien Grosjean and Florian Mayer - may be fancying their chances, some more than others.

"If Federer plays at the top of his game," McEnroe said, "I think he's going to win the tournament. But I don't know if he'll go through seven matches without having a period where he struggles. I believe he is a human being. He's playing at a supernatural level and he makes it look easy, but when things get tight there is a chance he can be beaten.

"His next match, he's playing a guy who's not playing with the same confidence, perhaps, that he did two years ago. But Hewitt is playing with more confidence than he did a year ago. So Federer doesn't have to look past this match. If he's not playing his best, I think he could be beaten. Having said that, I still pick him to win the tournament."

Becker also wonders if Federer can extend his winning run of matches on grass [since losing to Ancic in the first round in 2002]. "The matches Roger has played and won easily [this time] were against opponents he was supposed to beat easily," he said. "Yes, he did it in a flawless way, and you almost had a feeling that he didn't break sweat early on. But in his last match, against [Ivo] Karlovic, already you could see two tie-breakers.

"The match with Hewitt is one of the highlights of the tournament. Obviously, the pressure is all on Federer, and Lleyton, for the first time in a long time, can play without pressure."

Time will tell, as Dali might have said.

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