Henman takes some comfort from marathon defeat

Australian Open: British No 1 bows out as unseeded Russian and French dark horse emerge as contenders
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The Independent Online

If Tim Henman wins Wimbledon next July - and your correspondent considers he can - his loss to Guillermo Canas, of Argentina, in five sets in the third round at the Australian Open last Saturday will be forgotten. Except by Henman.

As he searched to salvage encouraging thoughts from a potentially disheartening defeat - he led Canas by two sets to love and by 4-1 in the final set of a duel lasting four hours and 53 minutes - Henman knew one thing for sure: something similar could not have happened 12 months ago. That was because Henman missed the Australian Open last year. He was recovering from surgery to his right shoulder.

Simplistic, perhaps, but after rescuing a mostly dismal 2003 by beating three of the world's best players - Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick - en route to triumph at the Paris Masters last December, the 29-year-old Henman said he had revised his attitude to success and failure.

Realising that the majority of his opponents in Paris were heavily involved in the countdown to the year-end honours, and were still winding up while he had the luxury of winding down, Henman decided that his campaign in 2004 would be based on an aggressive game and a relaxed state of mind. "However," he added, in case listeners thought he had lost touch with reality, "if you get involved in a big match it's not easy to stay relaxed."

Those words were amplified on Saturday as Henman's 100 winning shots were diluted by 74 errors and his nine aces were erased by the same number of double-faults. Two of those, crucially, were when he lost his serve at 7-7 in the fifth set. Canas prevailed, 6-7, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5, 9-7.

So once again Henman has fallen short at the highest level of the game, raising familiar doubts. He is proud of his exploits on the Wimbledon lawns, and believes he is capable of improving on four semi-final appearances there on his favourite surface.

But he acknowledges that he ought to have done better at the three other Grand Slam championships, having failed to advance beyond the fourth round when asked to deal with the high bounce on Australia's Rebound Ace, the slow clay in France and the rubberised concrete in the United States. There have been times in the past when Henman has floundered against lower-ranked opposition he was expected to overcome, but the 26-year-old Canas is no stranger to the British No 1.

This was the resolute Argentinian's fourth win in their five encounters, and the third time he has dislodged Henman in a major championship. Canas embarrassed Henman in straight sets in the first round of the 1999 US Open and denied him in the third round of the 2001 French Open, 7-5 in the fifth set.

Like Henman, Canas has been beset by injury problems, resulting in his ranking tumbling from 12 to 258. He had surgery to his right wrist in 2002 and to his right hand last year, when he missed eight months of the season.

In the fourth round Canas plays a compatriot, David Nalbandian, the runner-up to Leyton Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final. Had one or two of Henman's shots not gone astray against Canas, a meeting between the Briton and the eighth-seeded Nalbandian would have been intriguing.

Nalbandian, whose game and confidence have improved since Henman defeated him in four sets in the fourth round at Wimbledon last year (the Argentinian's only loss in their five matches) provided the catalyst for Henman's altered thinking when he beat him in Basle last October, 6-2, 6-4.

"Everything I tried to do was too forced," Henman recalled. "I was too tight. It was more by luck than design that I won in Paris, where my attitude was that if I lost, I was going to be pretty happy because it would bring an end to the year. I was very relaxed and loose in Paris." While in Paris, Henman telephoned Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras's former coach, for advice. The arrangement was solidified by Annacone's appointment as Henman's part-time coach. The Australian Open was their first tournament together.

After completing the debriefing of the Canas match, Annacone, who advocates aggressive serving and a clear game plan, was due to return to America, while Henman prepares for forthcoming tournaments in Rotterdam and Dubai.

Those happened to be Henman's first ports of call last year. This time he is healthier and perhaps wise enough to take set-backs in his stride on the way to better things.