It was not exactly lift-off, but Tim Henman successfully negotiated his first match of the year last night to advance to the second round of the ExxonMobil Qatar Open. The British No 1 defeated David Sanchez, a Spanish baseliner, ranked 50th in the world, 6-3, 6-0.
However, a slowish, rubberised-concrete court and high humidity, conspired to make life as difficult for Henman as he sometimes made it for himself.
The opening set contained some of the best and worst of the serve and volleyer from Oxfordshire, who ended last season on such a high note with a triumph at the Paris Masters.
Henman was often hesitant on his shots and vulnerable to being passed. At other times he displayed the sharpness and confidence that were the hallmarks of his victory in Paris.
Henman converted his fourth opportunity of the match to break to love for 3-1, then survived a dodgy service game, having double-faulted to 30-40, to hold for 4-1. From that point, the set ought to have been easy. But Sanchez was allowed back from 0-40 in the sixth game and began to look mildly threatening after saving a set point when serving at 2-5.
Ominously, Henman steered a forehand volley over the baseline for 30-40 when serving for the set at 5-3, and then missed with a cross-court forehand drive to be broken.
Sanchez was unable to level the set at 5-5, but he had four game points, saved two more set points and battled through six deuces before Henman converted his fourth set point, lunging to hit a backhand half-volley winner down the line.
The opening set took 54 minutes. The second was over after 20 minutes as Henman grasped the initiative with a backhand volley for 2-0 and broke twice more to earn a second-round match against either Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, or Olivier Rochus, of Belgium. The Briton, at No 7, is the only seed left in the bottom half of the draw.
Rainer Schuettler has had mixed fortunes. The 27-year-old German won the title in 1999, defeating Britain's Henman in the final. The following year he was lucky to escape with his life after the desert jeep he was driving overturned on a dune.
Yesterday, Schuettler, the second seed, was knocked out in the first round by the Russian Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 7-6. Youzhny, ranked No 43, is best known for his dramatic Davis Cup-winning performance against France in Paris in 2002. Here he overcame a bout of cramp to defeat Schuettler.
The German, who was expected to meet Henman in the quarter-finals of the tournament, saved two match points at 4-5 in the second set, only for Youzhny to recover from 1-4 in the tie-break and win the shoot-out, 7-5, on his third match point.
Mark Philippoussis, a finalist at Wimbledon last year and at the United States Open in 1998, and a Davis Cup final hero for Australia last year and in 1999, has already ventured where Henman hopes to tread. When it comes to media reaction to wins and defeats, however, Philippoussis believes Henman's path has converged with his own.
"The public has always been very supportive," the third-seeded Philippoussis said yesterday on the eve of his opening match against the Austrian defending champion, Stefan Koubek. "But the Australian press can be very hard on you. If you do well, they jump on the bandwagon. If you have a couple of bad results, they're down on you.
"I think the English press is similar in many ways. I think Henman handles it very well. It will either break a person or make him stronger. I think it definitely made Henman stronger."
The 27-year-old Philippoussis, who reckons to have spent nearly four years of his 10-year career recovering from injuries, believes, like the 29-year-old Henman, that his best is yet to come. "When you think about it," he said, "I finished in the top 10 for the first time, but I didn't have an incredible year. I definitely think I can do a lot more than I did last year."
Andy Roddick, the 21-year-old US Open champion and world No 1, has even more reason for optimism. "My goals this year are not quite as number-related as they were in the past," the American said as he prepared to start the season against Nikolay Davydenko, of Russia. "I'm just focusing on different aspects of my game. One of them is fitness, which I've taken care of in the off-season. Even though I finished No 1 last year I feel I can improve in all aspects."Reuse content