Henman reveals lighter side to set up Federer tussle

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The Independent Online

In Tim Henman's terms it was almost the equivalent of hurdling the net in celebration, running twice around the court and then lying spreadeagled on his back with his feet pumping the air. The 31-year-old Briton usually keeps his emotions in check, but after his five-set win over Robin Soderling in the first round here yesterday he could hardly keep an ear-to-ear smile off his face.

Not only did Henman's 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 victory earn a meeting with Roger Federer, the world No 1 and champion here for the last three years, but it also helped to ease some of the bad memories of the last 21 months. Since reaching the semi-finals of the 2004 US Open the former British No 1, increasingly troubled by a dodgy back, had been dropping down the rankings. His position at No 76 in the world earlier this month was his lowest for 10 years, although he is now 12 places higher after his recent run to the semi-finals of the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club.

There was a time when a Wimbledon victory over an opponent like Soderling, who is ranked No 37 in the world, would have been regarded as routine for a player whose record of consistency at the All England Club is unmatched by anyone over the last 10 years.

Last year, however, showed how much Henman's physical problems had detracted from his game. After struggling to beat Jarkko Nieminen in five sets he lost in the second round to Dmitry Tursunov, who went on to beat him in two of the next three Grand Slam tournaments.

It was only this spring, after changing his service action and training regime following a winter visit to the medical department at the university of Dijon that Henman started to put together results more appropriate for a former world No 4 and four-times Wimbledon semi-finalist.

Soderling, 21, lost to Henman here in the third round three years ago and went into yesterday's contest with a modest record of 11 victories in 20 matches on grass, compared with his opponent's 80 wins out of 110. The 6ft 3in Swede strikes the ball with impressive power and Henman often had trouble with the sheer weight of his serve, but nearly all the finesse was on the British side of the net.

Henman played a clever game, rationing his approaches to the net and mixing up aggressive ground strokes with a steady flow of drop shots. The Briton would have been on court for considerably less than three and a quarter hours had he not failed to take his chances in the opening set. Rarely in trouble on his own serve, Henman failed to convert break points in three of Soderling's service games, wasted a set point in the tie-break and then handed the set to the Swede with a double fault.

To Henman's credit he quickly re-established his authority by holding his serve to love in the first game of the second set. From 2-2 he then won eight of the next nine games and seemed to be firmly back in control until Soderling broke him three times in the fourth set to level the match.

Once again, however, Henman's response was swift. He held his first two service games in the deciding set to love and made what proved to be the decisive break in Soderling's first service game.

The prospect of meeting Federer, who wasted little time completing a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Richard Gasquet, is one that excites Henman. Of all the players who have played the world No 1 more than once only Henman and Rafael Nadal have won more matches against him than they have lost. Four of Henman's six victories in their 10 meetings came five or more years ago - including a quarter-final win in 2001 in their only meeting here - and Federer has won their last three, but the Briton is still a player for whom the world No 1 has the greatest respect, particularly on grass.

"It's as tough as it gets for a second round," said Federer, who admitted at the weekend that Henman had given him "nightmares" in the past. "I'd hoped that he wasn't going to be in my section of the draw. I know how well he can play on grass. He was a sort of a dark horse early on in my career."

Henman said he would relish the role of underdog. "It feels really good to be playing a match here at Wimbledon with very little pressure and expectation," he said. "I want to go out there, go for my shots and see what happens.

"I'm very, very happy with the way that I've played on grass this year. It's been a huge improvement for me. From 2002, I hardly played any good matches on grass." How will he set about beating Federer? "I've got to play my own game, try and create some opportunities and not let him dictate as much as he likes to do," Henman said. "I haven't beaten him for a while, but I know my game matches up well."

Federer's victory over Gasquet broke Bjorn Borg's record of 41 consecutive wins on grass. "Many of those 42 matches have been incredibly close, especially a few of them in Halle," Federer said. "I'm surprised myself I kept it that long."

Yesterday at Wimbledon

* Andre Agassi, the 1992 champion in his last Wimbledon, started slowly before beating Boris Pashanski, of Serbia & Montenegro, in four sets.

* World No 1 Roger Federer eased past Bjorn Borg's record to reach 42 straight wins on grass by beating Richard Gasquet in straight sets.

* Britain's Tim Henman reached the second round but not without the traditional struggle, beating Robin Soderling, of Sweden, in five sets.