Henman's game caught in noose of loose shots

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Tim Henman defeated Fabrice Santoro for the loss of a single game in the first round of the Italian Open two years ago, the Frenchman did not want to play in the tournament, and it showed. Yesterday, Santoro was prepared to exchange shots all day if necessary, and he prevailed in their second- round match, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, after two hours and 36 minutes.

Overall, it was one of Henman's better duels on a slow clay court, but his prospects of advancing to the last 16, as he did here last year, were ruined by the odd loose shot here and there.

"The only slight criticism I would have was that I didn't assert myself early in the third set," the British No 1 said. Nor did Santoro, to be fair: only six points were conceded on serve in the opening seven games of the decider.

Henman was fortunate to hold serve in the eighth game after double-faulting to 30-40. He erased the break point with a forehand drive and won the game with a forehand halfvolley that clipped the net cord and fell inside the sideline.

Santoro's serve was under pressure at 4-4. He missed a backhand to go 15-30 down and was relieved when Henman drove a forehand wide on the next point.

The Frenchman proved sharper with his openings when Henman served in the concluding game, hitting a backhand down the line for 15-30 and passing Henman with a forehand down the line for 15-40. Henman saved the first match point with a smash, but had no answer to Santoro's backhand return down the line on the second.

Henman, the No 8 seed, created the first openings in a tight first set, but was unable to convert any of three break points at 4-3. Henman hit a forehandservice return wide on the first opportunity, was denied the second by his opponent's winning serve, and played a crosscourt backhand wide on the third.

Santoro, who constructs points cleverly from the baseline with two-handed shots on both wings, appeared to have the opening set as good as won after breaking for 6-5 with a perfectly timed forehand lob. Henman, to his credit, earned a tie-break when Santoro netted a sliced backhand at 15-40 in the next game.

Henman failed to make a first serve in the shoot-out. He recovered from 0-1 to 2-1, only to play a backhand long at 3-4. Henman saved one set point with a crosscourt forehand, but hit a forehand half-volley long at 5-6.

The second set went Henman's way after he converted the third of three break points for 2-1 with a smash. The final set was finely balanced until Santoro saw the chance to strike. "He is unorthodox and very difficult to play, especially on clay," Henman said, "but on hard court and indoors I feel I can overpower him."

The mercurial Yevgeny Kafelnikov did not win many friends during his second-round loss to Argentina's Mariano Puerta, 6-4, 6-4. Seeded to meet Andre Agassi in the final, the Russian was booed off the Centre Court by spectators who expected a more resilient performance. Cheers greeted Agassi, who did not disappoint, dispatching Gaston Gaudio, an Argentinian qualifier, 6-1, 6-4.

Cedric Pioline, who last month became the first Frenchman to win the Monte Carlo Open for 37 years, was unable to reproduce similar form here. The No 5 seed wasdefeated in the second round by Andrei Pavel, a Romanian qualifier, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6.

Carlos Moya, the 1998 French Open champion and the only Spaniard to rise to world No 1 in the men's game, is still easing his way into the new season after missing much of last year with a back injury. Although a winner in Estoril last month, Moya was unable to trouble Sweden'sMagnus Norman in the second round here. Norman, the third seed, won 6-4, 6-2.

The ATP Tour is in the process of weaning tennis devotees off the tournament's traditional title, the Italian Open, formerly the Italian Championships, in the cause of branding its flagship Tennis Masters Series. The Tennis Masters Series Rome takes some getting used to, but for the majority of spectators this week the name is less significant than the fact that no Italian player has reached the second round of the men's singles for the first time in the history of the event.