Henman ready to stand up to Rusedski's serve

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The Independent Online

There would be a sweet irony if Tim Henman were finally to achieve his potential 12,000 miles from the grass courts of SW19. The Australian Open title may be clearly in his sights; first, though, he must vanquish his fellow Briton, Greg Rusedski, a player for whom the clock ticks equally insistently.

The two men will face each under lights here today (09.30 GMT) on Rod Laver Arena, a tennis stage rated by many second only to the Centre Court at Wimbledon. The potential riches awaiting the victor could not be more alluring: a trouble-free passage into the second week and a possible ticket to the final.

The tournament is only in its third round but, thanks to a mass exodus of top players, the winner of the all-British encounter has a real chance of success at Melbourne Park. The only seeds remaining in the bottom half of the draw last night were Sweden's Thomas Johansson, ranked No 16, and Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic, the No 26.

Three times Henman has come within two whiskers of winning a Grand Slam, losing in the semi-finals of his beloved Wimbledon. Elsewhere, though, he has never progressed beyond the fourth round and, at 27, time is running out for the Oxford-born British No 1.

Rusedski, a year older, is groping his way back to the form that saw him reach the 1997 US Open final and a career high of No 4 in the world. Out of action with a foot injury and back problem for much of 2000, he has painstakingly rebuilt his game and has the look of a man convinced that his time has come.

On paper, Henman, the highest remaining seed – at No 6 – is the favourite. He has won six of the pair's eight previous meetings, defeating Rusedski – the British No 2 – in the quarter-finals of the Australian Hardcourt Championship in Adelaide two weeks ago. He has the more complete game, and the lion's share of support at home. The Canadian-born Rusedski, who became a British citizen in 1995, will never be clasped to the public's bosom as warmly as Henman, the quintessential Home Counties Englishman.

But Rusedski has less to lose, and it was on Rod Laver Arena that he upset Gustavo Kuerten, then the world No 1, in an epic second-round battle last year before expertly dismantling Australia's Mark Philippoussis on the same court this week.

The two opponents have had a barnstorming start to the season, Henman taking the Adelaide title and Rusedski the Heineken Open in Auckland. The former is on a seven-match winning streak; the latter has nine wins to one defeat. In New Zealand, Rusedski passed an important milestone, conquering Goran Ivanisevic for the first time in 10 matches.

Tonight much will depend on his powerful serve, as Henman acknowledged. "You're trying to get as many balls back as possible, but you also have to concentrate on your own serve," he said. "You can't afford to slip up because you know that breaking is going to be so difficult."

Henman believes that his game has improved after recent work on his serve with his coach, Larry Stefanki. That view is shared by Tony Pickard, the former British Davis Cup captain, who predicted a Henman win because of his current form.

The big question is which player has the psychological edge. Rusedski admits that he finds it difficult to play Henman, and says he is determined to forget who is on the other side of the net. Philippoussis, who lost to Henman in Adelaide, tips the latter. "I feel like maybe Tim has got his [Rusedski's] number a little bit," he said.

The two men are not the best of friends, which will give the match added spice. It has been said of them that while they share the same birthday, they are a year and an ocean apart. Henman resented Rusedski when he arrived in Britain and was made No 1, and the pair fell out after Henman publicly criticised Rusedski for failing to play an exhibition match in 2000.

Since then, they have patched up their differences. "We have a mutual respect for each other," Rusedski said. "There have been a few silly spats, but it is a process of maturing."

An air of anticipation surrounds tonight's match, with Australians focusing on the British derby following the exit of all their own male players in the first three days.

Most of Henman's adoring fans will be watching from the other side of the world, and that may work to his advantage. Reflecting on the frenzied attention that he receives at Wimbledon, one Australian newspaper observed: "Should he reach the semis, Henman can be thankful that this time it's happening in the colonies."