Henman revitalised as great rival suffers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Although the personal relationship between the Canadian-born Greg Rusedski and the quintessentially English Tim Henman has never been close enough for one to bleed if the other is cut, circumstances have conspired to twin them in tennis terms.

Inevitably, the shock of Rusedski's confirmation in Australia last Thursday that he had tested positive for nandrolone in July last year was bound to take the spotlight away from Henman's encouraging displays here in Qatar en route to the Australian Open, which starts next Monday.

Henman had already advanced to the semi-finals of the ExxonMobil Qatar Open before the Rusedski drama broke. It would be stretching a point to suggest that the news played a part in the British No 1's defeat, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, by Ivan Ljubicic, of Croatia, on Friday. That was down to Henman.

Serving for the opening set at 6-5, Henman missed a backhand volley to present Ljubicic with two break points. Henman saved the first, floating a backhand down the line, but surrendered the second, netting a high backhand volley. Ljubicic went n to take he tie-break, 7-2.

Croatians and rain delays tend to be a recipe for disaster for Henman (remember his Wimbledon semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic in 2001?), but a shower in the second set here did not break his concentration as he levelled the match. Nor did a another short delay in the final set take any advantage away from Henman, who had three break points for 5-4 and then led in the tie-break, 5-2.

Ljubicic, serving confidently on first and second serves, recovered to 5-5. Henman netted another backhand volley to leave Ljubicic on match point, and then netted a forehand return to 5-7.

So ended the most impressive winning sequence of the 29-year-old Henman's career: nine matches in a row from the start of his run to triumph at the Paris Masters last November.

A year ago, Ljubicic defeated Henman in straight sets in the first round in Rotterdam, the Briton's first match after surgery. "He served incredibly that day," Henman recalled, "and the outcome was not a downfall for me, just a big step to get back. In the last 10 or 11 months my game has come a long way."

That was evident in Paris, where Henman defeated three of the world's finest players, Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, thanks to an aggressive serve and a relaxed mind.

Thanks to that, Henman entered the new year on the launchpad of a world ranking of No 15, and picked up his Paris form and attitude in his opening matches in Qatar against David Sanchez, of Spain, Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, and Sargis Sargsian, of Armenia.

Before leaving here to join his coach, the American Paul Annacone, in Melbourne for a week on the practice courts ahead of the Australian Open, Henman said: "It was tough to lose [against Ljubicic], but when you're playing someone who serves as well as he does you've got to take all your chances. It's a disappointing loss, but I think in the context of what I'm trying to do, the direction I'm trying to go, it's been a very positive week."

Ljubicic, ranked No 42, was unable to sustain his form in yesterday's final, which was a triumph for Nicolas Escude, of France, here on a wild card to play his first tournament since retiring because of a hip injury in the second round at Wimbledon last June. Escude, ranked No 114, defeated Ljubicic, 6-3, 7-6.

Roddick, the world No 1, who was eliminated in the second round by Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden, finished runner-up in the doubles with Stefan Koubek, of Austria. "I played six matches this week in competitive situations," Roddick said. "I'm going to play [the exhibition event] at Kooyong, so I'll have three guaranteed matches, which will be good."

Roddick, a semi-finalist at the Australian Open last year, won back-to-back five-set matches in Melbourne, including a 21-19 fifth set - a Grand Slam record in the Open era - in a five-hour quarter-final against Younes El Aynaoui, of Morocco.

"I felt like I connected with the fans there and I'm excited to get back there," he said.