Henman-Ivanisevic: the rematch

Old rivals meet tonight for the first time since their epic Wimbledon semi-final of 2001

We should have known that bad weather would hit the south-east this week. Tim Henman and Goran Ivanisevic face each other in London tonight for the first time since the Croatian won one of the most famous rain-affected matches in Wimbledon history.

Henman, who is making his debut on the ATP Champions Tour, plays Ivanisevic in the round-robin phase of the Aegon Masters at the Royal Albert Hall. When they came face to face yesterday morning it was no surprise that conversation quickly turned to 2001, the year when Ivanisevic became the first wild card ever to win Wimbledon.

The big-serving Croatian beat Pat Rafter to win the title but would probably not have made it to the final but for the British weather. The semi-final took three days to complete. Henman, who never had a better chance to win Wimbledon, appeared to be on his way to victory when rain curtailed play on the first day with the Briton leading by two sets to one; it was only eight years later that the All England Club installed a retractable roof over Centre Court.

"That match had a huge impact on our careers," Henman said yesterday. "In this country it's obviously the match that most people want to talk about. To play over three days, it was pretty amazing circumstances."

Ivanisevic had lost three previous Wimbledon finals, to Andre Agassi in 1992 and to Pete Sampras in 1994 and 1998. Troubled by a sore shoulder, he had slipped to No 125 in the world rankings, although his confidence grew as he blasted aside Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Greg Rusedski and Marat Safin en route to the last four.

Henman, who had won all four of his previous meetings with Ivanisevic, had lost to Sampras in two previous Wimbledon semi-finals, in 1998 and 1999, but this time the American had been knocked out in the fourth round by a promising young Swiss, Roger Federer, who had in turn lost to Henman in the quarter-finals.

The semi-final began at tea-time on the Friday and ended on Sunday afternoon more than 45 hours later. The most significant rain break came at the end of the first day, with Henman leading by two sets to one and by 2-1 in the fourth set, having taken the third in just 15 minutes without dropping a point on his serve.

Ivanisevic levelled at two sets all on the Saturday. Henman was serving at 2-3 and 30-15 when another shower forced the match into a third day. Sunday's action lasted just 17 minutes, Ivanisevic making the decisive break to lead 5-3 after Henman had hit a double fault at deuce.

That evening Ivanisevic told reporters: "If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and says: 'OK, Goran, you're going to win Wimbledon tomorrow, but you're not able to touch the racket ever again,' I will say: 'OK, I'd rather take that and then never play tennis again in my life.'"

Ivanisevic, who went on to beat Rafter in the first men's singles final to begin on the third Monday since 1922, admitted yesterday: "Everything was on my side, especially in that semi-final. If Wimbledon had decided to put a roof on a couple of years earlier it's 100 per cent certain I would have lost that match. If we had finished that match on the Friday then he was just playing too well. I didn't play badly at all. I just didn't have any answer how to beat him.

"Then somehow, I don't know why, the rain came. After that rain everything changed and I played better and better and he wasn't producing the same game he was producing on the Friday. Then I knew there had to be somebody or something that wanted me to win Wimbledon that year."

Henman, who admits that a rain break had helped him against Todd Martin earlier in the tournament, recalled: "In the first two sets I had no real play on Goran's serve. Then, over time, I started to read it a bit better. Then I could have a bit of an impact.

"The biggest thing I found was that after the rain delays on both occasions his rhythm was so much better. He was hitting his spots again and it was almost like I had to go through the same process all over again to try and break him down. That was impossible to do and in the fourth and fifth sets I didn't break serve."

When Henman began training for this week's tournament – he had one practice session with Federer at Queen's Club during the world No 2's preparations for last week's ATP World Tour Finals – it was the first time he had picked up a racket since playing in an exhibition event at Wimbledon 18 months earlier. Since retiring three years ago Henman has devoted much more time to his family and his golf.

So why has the 36-year-old decided to start playing again now? "I just wanted to play some events because the players I'd spoken to had said how much they enjoyed being back out on the court in a more relaxed environment, which is not as intense as it used to be. With that in mind I think there's a possibility I'll play a few more events like this, maybe three or four events a year."

Ivanisevic, now 39, is a regular on the seniors tour – he has won titles this year in Barcelona and Knokke – and is pleased that Henman is on board. "I saw him at the World Tour Finals in London last year and I told him he should come back and play with us," Ivanisevic said. "He's a great tennis player and we miss players like him."

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