Henman slow to find his feet on grass

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman posted his first win yesterday since his amazing run to the semi-finals at the French Open. Ominously, however, the British No 1 struggled on the supposedly slick grass more than he did on the slow clay courts in Paris.

Tim Henman posted his first win yesterday since his amazing run to the semi-finals at the French Open. Ominously, however, the British No 1 struggled on the supposedly slick grass more than he did on the slow clay courts in Paris.

What made life all the more frustrating for Henman was that his Spanish opponent, Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo, who was playing on grass for the first time in his career, looked far the more comfortable on Court One for the best part of two sets.

While Henman seemed nervous and ill at ease with his serving and volleying, Ramirez adapted his natural clay-court game with impressive assurance, wrapping his right hand round his racket handle in an extreme "western" grip and bombarding the fifth-seeded Oxfordshire man with heavy top-spin.

Ramirez's two-handed backhand was his most effective shot, and the Spaniard used it to such good purpose that Henman did well to salvage two set points that threatened to put him two sets to love down. That would have been all too similar to his early matches at the French Open, where he prevailed thanks to a combination of a strong will and a relaxed state of mind.

Whatever Henman may say - and believe - about feeling at home when he competes at the All England Club, the pressure is all around him. After he levelled the match at one set all yesterday, the relief was palpable. All that was missing was the England football supporters' band playing "The Great Escape".

Escape Henman did, winning 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 after three hours and two minutes. He was not convincing at the start of what the nation hopes will end in a triumph after four semi-final appearances in which he was defeated by the eventual champion.

"If you look at some of my past Wimbledons," Henman said, "the first round has not always been the easiest or the most straightforward. Sure I was frustrated today, but I never felt like the result was going to be in doubt."

That was not the case in the worried minds of some of the 29-year-old Henman's supporters, some of whom will remember his only loss in the first round at Wimbledon, in four sets to David Prinosil, of Germany, when making his first appearance in 1994.

Yesterday brought Henman's first experience of playing a Spanish opponent on the lawns of SW19. After a set and a half, he must have wished the man on the other side of the net had been Don Quixote. The 26-year-old Ramirez was not tilting at windmills. Ranked 89th in the world, he is not a Ferrero, or a Moya, or a Correjta, renowned for their deeds. None the less, Ramirez came to Wimbledon with the fresh approach to playing on grass common among his countrymen.

He was determined to see for himself and have a go, and although he lost his footing from time to time, he built enough confidence to engage Henman in some volleying duels at the net, fortunate to catch his opponent on an off-day.

Unable to rely on his serve, Henman was broken to love in the seventh game of the opening set. Matters did not improve for him and he lost his serve again in the third game of the second set. Henman hit the fifth of 10 double-faults at 15-15 in this game - his second delivery, off the frame, landing close to his opponent's baseline.

Henman managed to convert his second break point of the match to level at 3-3, but was in trouble again when the set went to a tie-break, contested beneath a threatening sky 40 shades of grey. Henman double-faulted to 1-3 and faced two set points with Ramirez serving at 6-4. Henman returned well enough to lure Ramirez into hitting a forehand long on the first opportunity and saved the second with a service winner.

A backhand drop-volley gave Henman a set point at 7-6 and Ramirez's usually reliable backhand landed over the baseline.

Henman broke in the first and fifth games of the third set and overcame the blip of another double-fault on break point when serving at 4-1 to hold on for a two-sets-to-one lead. But even after that there were signs that Henman was not happy with his game.

Ramirez managed to save two break points in the opening game of the fourth set. After the first, Henman swore at himself, and a sideline judge ran over to the umpire, Andreas Egli, of Switzerland, and reported the incident. Egli decided not to take disciplinary action and as the linesman walked back to his post, Henman gave himself two slaps on his wrist. "I was showing too much emotion," he said afterwards, smiling.

Henman did not have to wait much longer to finish the tiring Ramirez, breaking in the fifth and seventh games and serving out the match with his 13th ace.

One of the leading critics of the perceived slowness of the Wimbledon courts in recent years, Henman was not impressed by the pace of Court One yesterday.

"In all honesty, I was definitely taken by surprise at just how slow the conditions were," he said. "It's a tricky scenario for the tournament. The show courts have got to be used for 13 days and therefore they need to be protected.

"You get the chance, obviously, to play on the outside courts, and they get a lot more play. And then you come on to a court like that, that has had only one day's play. It was very slow, and gave a player of [Ramirez's] style time to play."

It will be interesting to see if Henman is sharper in his second-round match tomorrow against Ivo Heuberger, a Swiss qualifier, ranked 137 in the world. When Martina Hingis famously fell out with her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, and lost in the first round of the women's singles in 1999, she sought solace by taking a holiday with Heuberger.

"I've seen him around for quite a few years," Henman said. "He's certainly played a lot more matches on grass than my opponent today, and he's played some big matches with [Roger] Federer as part of the Swiss Davis Cup team. I've just got to make sure that I play better than I did today. But I still fancy my chances."