Henman struggles to bloom against Black

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The Independent Online

Before playing for the United States against Zimbabwe in Harare in the first round of the Davis Cup in February, Andre Agassi was asked for his impressions of the Black brothers. "I don't do impressions of the Black brothers," Agassi replied. This is hardly surprising, particularly since the older brother, Byron, hits the ball two-handed on both sides.

Tim Henman is familiar with Byron's style, having defeated him in the last four of their six previous matches before they played each other on a slow clay court for the first time yesterday in the opening round of the Italian Open here.

Tricky though Black's game can be, Henman was fortunate to have avoided one of the natural clay court players so early in the tournament, such as Fabrice Santoro. The British No 1 overcame Black, 7-6, 6-4, at least settling his feet on the Roman clay before meeting the Frenchman in the next round.

Henman, it may be remembered, swept Santoro aside, 6-1, 6-0, in the first round here in 1998. So what's the problem? The problem is that it was one of the most misleading results of Henman's career. Santoro, weary from recent labours, wanted to give the Italian Open a miss on that occasion, and only played after being threatened with a fine.

In second round in 1998, Henman was overwhelmed by Marcelo Rios, the Chilean former world No 1, who went on to win the Italian title.

Last year, Henman advanced to the last 16 before losing to Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, as evening mist gathered around the 18 marble statues that adorn Court No 1 at the Foro Italico. Yesterday, as the afternoon sun turned to shadow on he same court, Henman, seeded No 8, prevailed without causing too much of a stir among his peers.

There were times when rows of marigolds at each end of the court were the victims of errant shots by both Henman and Black, and there was concern among British supporters when Henman was hauled back to 4-4 in the opening set after leading 3-0. A timely forehand drive prevented Henman from slipping behind, 5-6, before the set went to a tie-break.

Henman was fortunate not to find himself 2-6 down in the shoot-out after scooping a forehand half-volley towards a sideline. It was a close call, but the German umpire, Rudi Berger, checked the line and ruled that the ball was in. "It was close," Henman agreed, "but I heard the ball hit the line."

After cracking Black's serve on the next two points, Henman took the set, 7-5, when his opponent netted a backhand.

Henman broke for 2-1 in the second set, but again failed to consolidate his lead, losing serve for 4-4 after a lob for 5-3 landed inches over the baseline. Henman responded by attacking Black's serve with great determination and breaking to love for 5-4. He served the match out to 15 when Black netted a backhand.

Knowing your opponent's game can be an advantage. Getting too used to it can be counter-productive. "I've been practising with Byron for three days," Henman said. "That was part of the trouble."

Agassi, the No 1 seed, practised with his American compatriot Todd Martin before the draw was made, but did not need the exchange of shots to know Martin's weaknesses. A strapped left knee and ankle were evidence enough. Martin was preparing for his first match since the Australian Open in January, after which he was injured playing basketball.

"Todd hadn't played for three months, and his rhythm was off early in the first set," Agassi said after winning, 6-2, 7-6. "But in the second set he was holding serve strongly, and I was fortunate to get into the tie-break." Agassi won the shoot-out, 7-4.

Agassi recounted that it was in Rome last year that he began to feel confidence return to his play. It was here also that he injured a shoulder playing Pat Rafter and wondered if he would be fit in time for the French Open, where he completed his set of the four Grand Slam singles titles. "It was quite a miraculous turnaround," he said. "Things had to go perfectly. And they did."

Scores

(8) Tim Henman (GB) beat Byron Black (Zim) 7-6 (7-5) 6-4 (3) Magnus Norman (Swe) beat Sebastien Grosjean (Fr) 6-3 7-6 (7-2) Francisco Clavet (Sp) beat Goran Ivanisevic (Cro) 6-4 3-6 7-5 (1) Andre Agassi (USA) beat Todd Martin (USA) 6-2 7-6 (7-4) (5) Cedric Pioline (Fr) beat Chriss Woodruff (USA) 6-1 6-1 Arnaud Di Pasquale (Fr) beat Karim Alami (Mor) 6-3 6-2 Hicham Arazi (Mor) beat Sjeng Schalken (Hol) 6-3 6-2 (9) Lleyton Hewitt (Aus) beat Stefan Koubek (Aut) 6-2 6-2 (6) Nicolas Lapentti (Ecu) beat Thomas Johansson (Swe) 6-4 7-5 Mariano Zabaleta (Arg) beat Richard Krajicek (Hol) 6-4 6-4 Fabrice Santoro (Fr) beat Laurence Tielemann (It) 7-5 6-3 Gaston Gaudio (Arg) beat Fernando Meligeni (Braz) 6-1 7-5 (14) Younes El Aynaoui (Mor) beat Vincent Spadea (USA) 6-2 6-3

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