Henman rides the wind to face Federer in US Open semi-final

There are some ill winds on this side of the Atlantic, but Tim Henman did not allow the one that swirled into the US Open here yesterday to blow him off course for a place in tomorrow's semi-finals.

The British No 1 finished a job he started the night before and defeated Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, 6-1, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2. He will now play Roger Federer, the Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and world No 1, a challenge Henman described as: "the biggest task in tennis right now".

Federer overcame the 34-year-old Andre Agassi, twice a champion here, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. It is the first time that Henman and Federer have reached the last four at the US Open, and will be the ninth time they have played each other. Henman leads the series, 6-2, but Federer trounced him in straight sets in their last match, at Indian Wells in March.

Lleyton Hewitt, who has won all eight matches he has played against Henman, also reached the semi-finals yesterday. The Australian fourth seed defeated Tommy Haas, of Germany, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 and will play Andy Roddick, the American second seed or Joachim Johansson of Sweden.

Agassi, though disappointed not to have edged a close contest with Federer, reiterated that he had no immediate plans to retire. He said: "I'm gong to keep going as long as I feel I have a realistic hope of putting together great matches and finding a way to win."

It will be Henman's sixth Grand Slam semi-final, but only his second outside Wimbledon. He surprised everybody, including himself, by advancing to the last four on clay at the French Open in June, and is now Britain's first representative in the last four in New York since Greg Rusedski who went on to the final in 1997.

Henman's journey to tomorrow's contest has been a long one, but he has managed to set aside worries about a lower-back injury to work his way through 22 sets and three games over 16 hours and eight minutes.

His match against Hrbaty was a strange affair, chiefly because of the difficult circumstances caused by the weather.

As Henman prepared to serve, leading Hrbaty by two sets and 4-3 with a break, in the quarter-finals on Wednesday night, little thought was given to the threat of further rain and the possibility that the British No 1 would be left in limbo. We ought to have known better, not only because the match was unfolding in a surreal atmosphere on the Grandstand Court, but also because Henman rarely makes life easy for his followers, even on an occasion when three made a crowd.

There were more spectators than that, of course ­ a total of 17 were present at the start of the match, and by the second set the first two rows were populated, albeit sparsely. In addition, the passengers and crew aboard a steady procession of aircraft over the grounds may have caught a glimpse of Henman and Hrbaty exchanging shots in a canyon of empty seats.

John McEnroe, in the television commentary box, said it was a pity so few spectators were there for such interesting matches. His remarks prompted the organiser to rush a note to McEnroe, who read it on air: "This has officially been declared John McEnroe Night, and anybody in Queens who shows up with their driver's licence will be let in free." Even those who had grown up with McEnroe within serving distance of Flushing Meadows may have glanced at the clouds and thought better of the offer.

A flag of St George appeared, draped over a couple of seats, and the Henmaniacs, though few in number, were vocal. It may have been spot-the-fan night, but one was accidentally hit on the head by a stray Henman shot.

The 30-year-old Henman either closed his mind to the fact that he appeared to have been transported to a practice court in Telford, or used the image to his advantage. Moreover, after a day of treatment and rest, he was confident that his suspect lower back would hold up.

He could not have made a better start, breaking twice to lead 5-0. Hrbaty, looking lethargic, eked out the next game before Henman served out the set, conceding only five points on serve. The second set became competitive after Henman was unable to convert any of four break points in the opening game. Play continued with serve, Hrbaty holding for 4-3, Henman hitting three aces for 4-4. Henman saved three set points serving at 4-5, broke for 6-5 and served out the next game on his third set point.

Hrbaty made a determined start to the third set and at 4-3, Henman lost his edge. He double-faulted twice and there was a sign of desperation in a forehand drive that clipped the net-cord and flew over the baseline. Hrbaty held for 5-4, and Henman, serving to stay in the set, lost the opening point before the tail of Hurricane Frances lashed another downpour and play was suspended overnight.

When the match resumed yesterday, Henman held for 5-5 but was broken to 30 netting a backhand on set point. Hrbaty gained a foothold, 5-7. Henman swiftly dislodged him, breaking him for 4-1 in the fourth set and serving out the match with a forehand volley to the corner of the court. The match lasted two hours 37 minutes, 44 minutes yesterday.

Twice Federer and Agassi had also packed their rackets for the night on Wednesday, having completed three sets of a thrilling quarter-final. Federer dominated the opening set, Agassi controlled the second, and Federer edged the third to lead, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. Although Federer lost the fourth set he completed the exciting contest by making the decisive moves in the concluding set.

Henman's serve and volley game was less affected by the wind than Hrbaty's groundstroke style. Even so, he was relieved not to have played in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"Grandstand is the most sheltered court," he said. "After my match I watched the last four or five games of Federer-Agassi and I couldn't believe how much windier it was."

Agassi, asked who he thought would reach the final, joked "well, if there's a wind like this, everybody could stay home and we could just flip coins."

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