Henman survives battle against uncertainty

British No 1 fails to dismiss lingering doubts over his potential to be a champion after lacklustre victory over Czech lucky loser
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The Independent Online

Tim Henman's latest odyssey began yesterday with a grinding win against Tomas Zib, a Czech lucky loser, ranked No 154 in the world, and a confession. Asked with tabloid sensitivity why he tends to be a nearly man who gets so far and then flops, the 28-year-old British No 1 said: "The bottom line is I haven't been good enough."

Four Wimbledon semi-finals in five years, having been beaten by the eventual champion, is no mean record. "The challenge for me is why haven't I progressed farther in this tournament?" Henman said. "My task is to improve. If you give a 100 per cent, there's nothing more you can do. If people start wanting more, that's when you start banging your head against a wall."

It was not quite head-banging time yesterday, especially after Monday's premature departure by Lleyton Hewitt, the defending champion and top seed. The spectators on Court One were cognisant of Henman's difficult road back to the All England Club after surgery to his right shoulder, and remembered that he did not play particularly well en route to losing to Hewitt one step from the final last year.

Instead of an air of expectation, there was a sense of foreboding, even though the nation's favourite tennis son turned up for action smiling and looking relaxed, but not complacent, as if to reassure them that he was ready to give his 100 per cent.

Two hours and 56 minutes later, after serving well and serving badly, serve-and-volleying and serve-and-hesitating, hitting winners and making errors, Henman prevailed, 6-2, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, and prepared for a debriefing before turning his thoughts to his next opponent. He plays Michael Llodra, a left-handed French qualifier, ranked No 136.

Zib's record in Grand Slam championships is consistent. He has played in all four majors and lost in the first round, including his only other appearance at Wimbledon in 2000. He gained entry this time after the Russian Marat Safin withdrew because of injury, and took Alex Corretja's place in the draw against Henman after the Spaniard returned home on paternity leave.

The 27-year-old Zib is from Pisek, sandwiched between the beer capitals of South Bohemia: Pilsen and Ceske Budejovic. He is by no means pint-sized at 5ft 10in, and has a lively style, mixing the odd drop-shot and volley into a predominantly baseline game.

Henman appeared to be more troubled by uncertainty with his first serve - pace, or placement? - and whether or not to approach the net behind it, than anything Zib could produce, particularly in the opening set. He won the first three games and also had two break points for 5-1.

He was only delayed when Zib took a five-minute injury time-out for treatment to his lower back, the physio almost tying him in knots in an attempt to ease the pain. Zib recovered well enough to break Henman at the start of the second set. Henman's response was immediate, and he went on to break for 4-2, only to double-fault to bring Zib back to 4-3.

Zib, who often questioned the line calls, had reason to feel aggrieved with Henman serving at 5-5, 15-40. Henman hit a serve down the centre line on the first break point and the umpire called the ball in. The line judge, in the process of raising an arm, let it drop again. Zib then missed a return on the second break point, and was left to serve to force the tie-break instead of serving to level the match.

The Czech had three set points in the shoot-out before Henman converted his fourth opportunity, for 13-11, to secure the set.

Henman double-faulted to lose his serve to love in the second game of the third set, but recovered to 3-3, only to break to love again for 3-5. Zib saved two break points before serving out the set. "The end of the second and third sets were a dog-fight," Henman said. "He was making life very difficult for me. But I was pleased the way I finished [the match] off."

Zib was broken for 2-0 in the fourth set, Henman converting his fifth break point, but fought back to 2-1 after Henman double-faulted to present the break point. By now, though, Henman had worked his way through the difficult phase. He broke twice, in the fourth and sixth games, and hit three aces in serving the match out.

"At times I got into a rut of staying back on my second serve a little too much but I felt my chipping and charging was as good as it's been in a long time," said Henman.

"On the second serve I need to get that balance a little better. It wasn't an easy match for me. Seeing Hewitt's upset put me on my guard. It crossed my mind when I missed a couple of forehand volleys. It added an incentive to knuckle down and get the job done. You've got to get out there and work hard for every point."

"I feel pretty relaxed about things," Henman added.

"It's what I play the game for and what I dreamt of as a youngster. Just stepping out there, playing in that type of atmosphere with that type of support it's pretty special."

If Henman's adventure gains momentum - and it will need to - he could end up facing Andre Agassi in the semi-finals. The 33-year-old from Las Vegas, the only former champion left in the draw, opened his campaign on Centre Court yesterday by eliminating a less celebrated British competitor, Jamie Delgado, 6-4, 6-0, 5-7, 6-4.

The 26-year-old Delgado, who was given a wild card to enter the gates with a ranking of 458, recovered from a second-set thrashing to take the third set, and kept Agassi busy for two hours. "I thought Jamie played well," Agassi said. "I came up a guy that was putting up some pretty good resistance." Had Delgado's forehand been as effective as his backhand, his resistance against the world No 1 might have lasted longer.

In view of the controversy last year about the slower courts and heavy balls, the views of Henman and Agassi on the surface were interesting. Henman on Court One: "I don't think it's playing any different from last year. The courts are in great condition. We talked about how the ball bounces a little bit higher. From my point of view, these are the conditions we've got. We've got to find out who can deal with them best."

Agassi on Centre Court: "I can't say that the court itself is much slower. For me, if a court plays perfect, you get better hits at the ball. So guys can have more confidence from the baseline. The courts are in better condition now than they've ever been. But you can still come forward and play the typical grass court tennis."

The grass, it seems, is always greener on the other side of the net.

* The total of 41,929 spectators who thronged the All England Club yesterday was a record for the first Tuesday of the Wimbledon Championships, with 609 more fans than the previous best attendance for the day, set in 2001.