Henman works night shift to demolish Philippoussis

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was 8.48pm. The moon was up, Centre Court was in shadow, pigeons flew around wondering what so many people were shouting about, and Tim Henman raised his arms in victory having won the 40th Wimbledon singles match of his career.

No player left in the tournament has accumulated so many matches, and yet, as the nation knows only too well, the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire has yet to win the title.

Last night's dramatic win against Mark Philippoussis, 6-2, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6, sent Henman through to the quarter-finals, where he will play Mario Ancic, a young man bursting to emulate his compatriot, Goran Ivanisevic.

But that is for another day, and we have time to catch our breath and marvel at the twists and turns of the fifth-seeded Henman's contest against the 11th-seeded Philippoussis.

The tall, powerful Australian with the booming serve that earned him the nickname "Scud'' went into the match having beaten Henman in four of their previous six matches. That included his five-set win against the British No 1 in the fourth round in 2000.

Henman gained revenge, but not without taking his supporters on another journey in an emotional mixer for three hours and seven minutes.

The crescendo that greeted his moment of triumph matched anything we have witnessed on any of the three "People's Sundays''.

"It's tough to make sense of it,'' Henman said immediately after it was over. "It was really intense out there. The quality of the play was so high all the time. I really had to stick in there. I had to keep fighting and stay strong mentally. I'm relieved to get through.''

Philippoussis, though bitterly disappointed, said: "Tim deserved to win. He definitely has the game to win it, but Ancic is a dangerous player.''

Events at the start of the match did not suggest that spectators would be leaving the grounds at twilight. In fact for two-and-a-half sets it seemed that Henman would wipe the court with Philippoussis, last year's beaten finalist. When Henman, two sets up, held to love for 2-2 in the third set the astonishing statistic was that he had dropped only seven points on his serve in the match. His domination of Philippoussis had been so complete that the Australian's serves, even those in the high 130mph range, were being treated with disdain by the confident Henman.

After three unconvincing displays en route to the last 16, Henman made the point that playing Philippoussis would be more straightforward ­ Philippoussis would hit big serves and move in to volley, and Henman's job was either to pass him or make him volley enough to make errors.

The scenario was precisely that, and Henman's early successes were made easier by the fact that his opponent was moving with all the mobility of an oak tree dressed in tennis whites. Philippoussis was lumbering and blundering. Not even Henman, at his most optimistic, would have expected his opponent to double-fault three times in one game, which he did in the fifth game of the opening set. He had already been broken in the first game, and his serving errors left him 4-1 down. Henman completed the opening set after only 24 minutes, having conceded only four points on serve.

The court was half in shadow at the start of the second set, in which Philippoussis continued to clank the heavy serves and Henman frustrated him with his returns and all-round court craft. It was not until the 11th game, however, that Henman broke through, passing Philippoussis with a backhand half-volley across the court for 30-40 and converting the opportunity with a backhand return of a 132mph serve that caught the corner of the court.

Or did it? Philippoussis certainly did not think so. He stood staring at the spot where he believed the ball had landed out and protested to the umpire, Enric Molina, of Spain, to no avail. On this occasion luck was with Henman and he took advantage by serving out the set to love. That was hardly surprising given that he had dropped only two points on his serve in his six service games.

Henman matches at major tournaments rarely run that smoothly. No sooner had spectators began to relax and enjoy the spectacle of a British sportsman in full flow than the first crisis came for Henman in the sixth game of the third set. Almost carefree to that point, Henman suddenly found his serve under serious attack. At 2-3, 30-40, having netted a forehand volley to offer the break point, he followed up a second serve with a backhand volley to salvage the situation.

Henman's supporters relaxed again ­ until their favourite was serving to save the set at 4-5 and was passed by a brilliant crosscourt backhand by Philippoussis for 30-40. Henman saved that break point with a solid serve. He finished that game with three aces to his credit, though Philippoussis was convinced that one of them was wide. On this occasion it seemed that Philippoussis was driven by frustration rather than conviction.

The Australian's temper was not improved when Henman was awarded another ace that took him to 40-30 in the 12th game. This time he overstepped the mark and swore at Molina, who gave him a warning.

After the match Philippoussis said he was sorry for the outburst. "Obviously, it's not great when kids are listening, and for that I apologise,'' he said. "But it was in the heat of the moment.''

Light was fading when it came down to a tie-break in the third set, and Henman lost the opening four points. And then double-faulted to 2-5. Philippoussis won the shoot-out, 7-3, on his first set point.

The fourth set was a passage of jangling nerves. At one point the plaintive cry, "Do it for England, Tim!'' came from a spectator, creating nervous laughter all round. After that the cheering for Henman between points was intense. Although he answered by breaking for 4-2, he had become as edgy as everyone else. Although he created two match points on Philippoussis's serve in the eighth game he was then broken when serving for the match at 5-3. None the less, he was able to put that blip behind him and edge a taut tie-break. Henman double-faulted on the first point, Philippoussis followed suit on the second point. Henman won the next and held for 3-1, was pulled back to 3-2, but then achieved the vital mini-break for 4-2 with a superb backhand pass from his service return down the line. He needed three more match points to finish the job, and the roar that went up when Philippoussis hit a backhand second service return wide for 7-5 drove the pigeons away and sent everyone who was not Australian home happy.