Henman ready to raise his game for challenge of Philippoussis

It was easy to tell it was "People's Sunday". Tim Henman's father, Tony, did not wear a tie. "When I'm chairman, that won't happen," the British No 1 said, smiling.

What will happen if and when the 29-year-old Henman does become chairman of the All England Club is that he will propose that the pay-at-the-gate middle Sunday becomes an established feature of the championships rather than an expedient to catch up after rain delays.

Yesterday was only the third "People's Sunday" since the championships began in 1877. The 11,000 people who queued and invested £35 on Centre Court tickets certainly had value for money. First, they were treated to a sublime display by Roger Federer, the defending champion and world No 1. Then they felt a need to raise their voices to a rare pitch of excited pleading to lift a stuttering Henman, sensing that the nation's sporting VIP of the day was in danger of leaving the tournament with them.

Had Henman succumbed to the skills of his Moroccan opponent, Hicham Arazi, after leading by two sets to love, SW19 today would be like Lisbon with showers. With the help of wholehearted support from Tom, Dick and Harriet, Henman prevailed 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 after two hours and 44 minutes.

So, we - those of us fortunate to have Centre Court passes or able to watch coverage on the Beeb - can look forward to this afternoon's potential blockbuster of Henman's fourth-round contest against Mark Philippoussis, last year's beaten finalist.

The 27-year-old Australian overcame Henman 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 on their only previous Wimbledon meeting, in the fourth round in 2000. Indeed, Philippoussis, the No 11 seed, has won four of their six duels. The Melbourne powerhouse has struggled for most of the season, but has played his way into form in his three matches on the familiar All England Club lawns.

Henman, the fifth seed, has been less than convincing. He was two set points away from going two sets to love down against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, a Spanish clay-courter, in the first round, and struggled through the opening set against Ivo Heuberger, a Swiss qualifier, in the second.

Yesterday Henman was the first to be broken in all four sets against Arazi, prompting my American colleague, Bud Collins, to say: "This is like watching Virginia Wade in 1977." A finale similar to Wade's triumph that year would be worth all the nail-biting between now and next Sunday.

Henman, ever positive, seems almost relieved to be playing Philippoussis next. "In some respects, it's a much more straightforward match for me," he reasoned. "I can play better, but I think I will play better, given the style that I'm going to play against. I'm sure Philippoussis is going to be coming at me the whole time with his serve." Conceding that "sometimes there isn't a great deal you can do [with his serve]," Henman added: "On that occasion we played here, I think he served 35 aces, and was too good for me on the day. But the way I've been playing, and perhaps with the changing [slower] conditions, it suits me well.

"When I relate it to my match today, Arazi is mixing it up: he's hitting some really heavy slice, taking me out of the court, then he's hitting slow kickers to my forehand, then he sometimes serves and volleys.

"Against Philippoussis, sure, he's a great player, one of the best grass-court players. He's going to hit his first serve hard and serve and volley, then he's going to hit his second serve pretty hard and serve and volley. So what do I do? I'm going to try to make him play as many volleys as I can, and if I get second shots, I am going to try and hit passing shots. I need to raise my level, but I think the style I'll need to play is much more clear cut."

Game plans are fine, and the simpler the better. Henman's more aggressive approach this year has brought him a good deal of success, particularly, if ironically, on the slow clay courts of Monte Carlo and Paris. But his displays on grass courts have not been dynamic. Still, as Stefan Edberg and his coach, Tony Pickard, used to say, work through to the second week and anything is possible.

Henman's second week started yesterday, beginning with a mighty roar by the strangers to Centre Court as he arrived in the arena, and continuing through the bumpy ride.

The 30-year-old Arazi, a left-hander with a dazzling talent, though too erratic to be a major champion, graced the court for much of yesterday's match. After breaking for 2-1 in the opening set, he called for the trainer, Bill Norris, to massage his neck and shoulders, which caused the spectators to wonder if his challenge was about to break down.

Henman broke back to 4-4, and went on to win a tie-break, 8-6, after saving a set point at 5-6. Arazi broke to lead 4-2 in the second set, after Henman had been able to take an opportunity in the opening game and two more at 2-2. Henman broke back for 3-4 and cracked Arazi a second time for 5-4.

There was no escape for Henman in the third set after Arazi broke for 2-0, and then he did well to extricate himself in the fourth set after losing his serve in the opening game and saving three break points in the third game. "When I was down 0-2 in the fourth," Henman said, "the crowd definitely helped me kick-start again and pick up my level."

The roars grew louder after Henman broke back for 2-2 and became a crescendo after he broke for 4-2, dashing across the court and delivering a forehand half-volley down the line. By now, Arazi must have realised that his time on Centre Court, breathtaking though it was on occasions, was about to expire.

Henman broke again in eighth game, converting his third match point with a trademark forehand volley. He then raised his arms, threw his towel to the crowd, and applauded the audience as he walked off to another ovation.

Perhaps he also reminded his father to wear a tie today, so as not to set a bad example to the Aussies.

Comments