It would be less ominous if Tim Henman had played particularly badly in losing to the fourth-seeded Andy Roddick in straight sets in the first round of the United States Open here on Tuesday night.
The fact is that Henman lacked the means to bridge the huge gap between his close victory against the American in the final in Washington less than a month ago and the far greater challenge of repeating his success in one of the game's four major championships.
A cruel draw paired them early in this tournament and Roddick showed how much his form had been sharpened by winning consecutive Masters Series titles in Montreal and Cincinnati, and how much he had learned about Henman from their previous match.
When the one chance arrived for Henman to put an element of doubt in Roddick's mind, the British No 1 only succeeded in destroying his own confidence, and the contest was won and lost.
The fleeting action as Henman served at 5-4 in the second set in an attempt to level the match encapsulated the difference between the two players: Roddick, about to mark his 21st birthday, with the world of tennis at his feet, Henman, on the verge of 29, with his prospects of a major success in his career all but diminished.
It had been obvious even before a shoulder injury led to surgery and lost time at the start of the season, that Henman's serve was not strong enough to intimidate powerful opponents with his serve-and-volleying style, which is the only way Henman can play. And here was further evidence, compounded by an apparent lack of tactical nous at a crucial moment.
Apart from double-faulting on the second point, Henman hit three serves to Roddick's mighty forehand, and the American savaged them. After Roddick took the set on a tie-break, 7-2, any further challenge to his supremacy was token as he went on to win, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.
Explaining why he served to Roddick's stronger wing in the key game, Henman said: "It was a strategy that if I served to his forehand I was, hopefully, going to be able to volley to his backhand, which is his weaker side. It's an obvious tactic. All credit to him, he hit three winners. You can second guess yourself if you like, but I'm certainly not going to."
Roddick said it was not so much a case of reading Henman's serves as finding that the ball came to him.
Few would disagree with Henman that Roddick "is playing better than anyone in the world right now". The lean competitor from Omaha, Nabraska, is building a compact game around his awesome serve he hit one at 140mph on Tuesday under the guidance of his coach, Brad Gilbert.
The question is where does that leave Henman as he strives to climb back up the rankings from the low 30s?
As a consequence of his injury lay-off, Henman has few ranking points to defend until the middle of next year. He is optimistic about making up ground during the indoor season tournaments in Vienna, Madrid, Basle and Paris. "I would like to think I could finish inside 20," he said.
His progress hinges on the serve. Having the best volley in the game is a limited asset if the ball zooms past you as you move to the net. Roddick is not the only player who will take big swings at Henman's deliveries, and his chip-and-charge tactics are sometimes reminiscent of the Light Brigade.
"Having had a shoulder injury," Henman said, "I still think there's probably a small percentage where I can serve a little bit bigger. But I still think you have to look at the way the conditions play and the way players return. Conditions are getting slower and slower, and players are returning better and better.
"It's a tough scenario. That's why so few players are serving and volleying these days. It's more and more difficult to do that. But that's my style of play. I'm the one that has to make it better, because I don't think conditions are going to change that dramatically.
"If I serve a little better and keep my ability at the net, then I know the vast majority of these guys won't like having to hit passing shots all day. I have to make sure I play to my strengths. There have certainly been times when I can get sucked into playing these other players' style of play. That's not going to do me any good."
It is the first time since the 1998 French Open that both Henman and Greg Rusedski have lost in the first round of a Grand Slam. Their immediate challenge is to overcome Morocco in next month's Davis Cup World Group promotion-relegation play-off. Asked if he expected to play a maximum three matches in three days on the clay in Casablanca, Henman was emphatic. "Absolutely," he said.Reuse content