Henman's early exit no longer a surprise

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The Independent Online

A first-round Grand Slam defeat for Tim Henman no longer has the capacity to shock. Instead, it evokes a sense of déjà vu, and a growing conviction that retirement is but a season or two away for the British No 1.

Henman's latest nemesis has a familiar name and face. Dmitry Tursunov is the hard-hitting Russian who upset his Wimbledon hopes last year in the second round. Yesterday, at the Australian Open, Tursunov beat him 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, after Henman infuriatingly threw away a 5-1 lead in the fourth set.

Despite four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments at which he has been ousted in the first or second round, the 31-year-old Briton is surprisingly mellow. Henman is happy to be fit after an injury-ridden 2005, and he is looking forward to competing in Zagreb later this month, having wisely reserved himself a spot in case he left Melbourne prematurely.

"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," Henman said. "I feel healthy. I want to play matches. I want to keep playing better."

While admitting that his expectations were lower than when he was in the top 10, Henman dismissed talk of retirement with a smile. However, he will review his future at the end of the season. "If I feel like I've done all the right things and I'm not satisfied with that level, then I would have to think long and hard about it," he said.

For Henman-watchers, the Tursunov encounter unwound in excruciatingly familiar fashion. First came a tight first set in which the Briton fell behind and then recovered. Then a second set that he should have dominated, but lost, the pendulum having swung back and forth. Then a plodding third with more of the same. A fourth where he finally woke up and took a commanding lead, only to give it away. And a fifth that should have been an exciting decider but which never took place.

As usual, it all took an unconscionably long time: It was three hours and 14 minutes before Tursunov punched the air, looking grimly satisfied.

British fans pinched themselves as Henman twice failed to serve out the fourth set, allowing the Russian to level at 5-5. Tursunov, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, his best Grand Slam performance to date, then nosed ahead and sent a cross-court forehand whisking past Henman at the net on match point.

The former world No 4 has grown used to disappointment, it seems, and to disappointing people. His defeat would prompt a "gloomy day" back home, someone observed.

"There've been plenty of those, haven't there?" Henman replied. But he still claims to have the competitive instinct. "That's what motivates me," he said. "I wouldn't necessarily say I'm playing my best, but at least I'm going to have a platform to work from. I still think there are good opportunities out there. I wouldn't put it down as the biggest setback right now."

As for the 23-year-old Tursunov, who has been playing Grand Slams for only two years, he may be one to watch. The California-based Russian is powerful, and he can be deadly. "He's so difficult to play against because a lot of the time the match is in his control," Henman said.

"You don't really know what to expect. When he's on with his shots, there's very little you can do," he said. "Whether you're serving at the corners, or serving at him, or just in a rally, he can hit winners from everywhere."