Henman sees grand plan turn to dust

Davydenko makes a mockery of British No 1's decision to quit Davis Cup to focus on the Slams

There may have been more painful and embarrassing Grand Slam defeats for Tim Henman, but none comes readily to mind. The 6-4 6-2 6-2 mauling the seventh-seeded Briton suffered against Nikolay Davydenko in yesterday's third round of the Australian Open comes only a week after he had turned his back on further involvement with his country's Davis Cup squad in order to concentrate on achieving better results at major tournaments like this one.

There may have been more painful and embarrassing Grand Slam defeats for Tim Henman, but none comes readily to mind. The 6-4 6-2 6-2 mauling the seventh-seeded Briton suffered against Nikolay Davydenko in yesterday's third round of the Australian Open comes only a week after he had turned his back on further involvement with his country's Davis Cup squad in order to concentrate on achieving better results at major tournaments like this one.

Henman's plan to unfurl the sort of aggressive tennis which had already seen him twice beat Davydenko in straight sets was wrecked by the 23-year-old Russian's pace and accuracy, particularly on return of serve. Time and again Henman was passed or trapped as he headed for the net. Time and again Davydenko clipped the lines. Time and again the Henman forehand failed him; and, yet again, he was unable to cash in on break points at a stage when still justified in thinking this was a match he could win.

There were no excuses. Any concerns about the possible effect of a long-term back condition were dismissed. Indisputably well below par where performance was concerned, Henman confirmed he was physically "100 per cent out there". Indeed, he was prepared to go further. "I heard Elena Baltacha say [on Friday] she got her arse kicked, and unfortunately I fall into the same bracket. I feel totally gutted."

So, on his ninth visit to the year's opening Grand Slam, Henman has still failed to progress to the meatier and meaningful phase of the event. The fourth round (three times) remains his peak in Melbourne. That he was not even able to get that far on this occasion was as surprising as it was disappointing, especially to the hundreds of his supporters, a battalion of the Barmy Army among them, who loyally cheered him on, even when the cause was long lost.

Sportingly - and accurately - Henman paid full tribute to his opponent who, he said, "came up with the answers". One of the problems for Henman was that he was not asking enough questions. Davydenko's recent improvement has been sharp, and he is ranked 26, his best ever. This is, forgive the pun, a far cry from the chap who used to be reduced to locker-room tears by defeat. A Ukrainian who chose to go for Russian citizenship, Davydenko based himself for years in Germany. An indication of his new status is a tax-avoidance address in Monte Carlo.

Although giving a public-parks appearance with his crumpled beige shirt and an inelegantly shovelled two-fisted backhand, Davydenko seemed prepared to run to Siberia if required to get the ball on to his mighty forehand. This was the shot which smashed Henman on to a London-bound flight, and it was the difference between the two men's forehands, plus the Russian's admirably consistent level of play, which pitched Henman out of the tournament.

The forehand, which contributed most of his 32 unforced errors, was what cost Henman his serve in the opening game, and Davydenko had two more break points which would have seen him lead 3-0 before the British No 1 steadied himself with a couple of love games. He should have wiped out that early break when, 4-3 behind, he created, and wasted, four break points. A clear indication of Davydenko's concern at this stage was the emission of a strange barking noise whenever he struck the ball, but the affliction subsided as Henman's challenge began to go do the same.

Having closed out the first set with his first ace, Davydenko came close to breaking again at the start of the second set as the sheer power of his ground- strokes pinned Henman in unfamiliar territory well behind the baseline. The break was not long delayed and, as gloomy girls with face-painted English flags looked on in disbelief, Henman conceded five games in succession and inevitably went two sets down.

Things promptly got worse as Henman again dropped serve in the opening game of the third set, a floated forehand sailing over the baseline. His court geography deserted him, too, as he elected to smash a ball that was heading into the tramlines - and struck it out of play. This was followed by an untypical swatting of a ball high into the crowd as the decline accelerated.

By now, even that shovel of a backhand was walloping winners for Davydenko, who dropped just three points on serve in as one-sided a final set as Henman has ever had to suffer. Still, the Barmy Army gave him a cheer, which he acknowledged, before marching in to the interview room to admit: "It's not a question of trying harder, I've got to try and play better."

Playing better and better is something that Andy Roddick is having no problem achieving. The second-seeded American moved into the last 16 by dismissing the Austrian Jurgen Melzer 6-2 6-2 7-5 with a barrage of 22 aces, a repeat of the artillery bombardment which had capsized Greg Rusedski in the previous round. As if that wasn't bad enough, poor Melzer dropped serve five times and was bundled to defeat in an hour and a half.

Roddick, who acknowledged, "I got better and better as the match went on", should have little difficulty marching into the quarter-finals, since his next opponent, the 21-year-old German Philipp Kohlschreiber, is making his Australian Open debut.

To massive acclaim from his compatriots, Lleyton Hewitt also reached the fourth round by defeating the Argentinian Juan Ignacio Chela 6-2 4-6 6-1 6-4, the final sword-thrust coming with an ace, and he now faces Spain's teenage wonder boy, Rafael Nadal, who made short work of the American qualifier Bobby Reynolds.

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