Henman's Paris adventure ends in courageous failure

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The Independent Online

It was not to be. Tim Henman's last tango in Paris promised so much, and raised hopes that he would become Britain's first men's singles finalist at the French Open for 67 years. But he was trapped by the ground strokes of Guillermo Coria, who went through to duel with his Argentinian compatriot, Gaston Gaudio, tomorrow.

It was not to be. Tim Henman's last tango in Paris promised so much, and raised hopes that he would become Britain's first men's singles finalist at the French Open for 67 years. But he was trapped by the ground strokes of Guillermo Coria, who went through to duel with his Argentinian compatriot, Gaston Gaudio, tomorrow.

Henman, who served for a fifth set, was defeated, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, 7-5 after two hours and 47 minutes. Coria, the third seed, will be the favourite to win the title and extend his impressive record on slow clay courts, which currently stands at only one defeat in his last 37 matches on the surface.

But Henman, who had not advanced beyond the third round here previously, will quickly swallow the disappointment of yesterday's anticlimax to his magnificent campaign and take a huge amount of confidence with him to Wimbledon.

A year ago, Henman took the opening set off Juan Carlos Ferrero, the eventual champion, in their third round match. The British No 1 was unable to sustain his effort then, but yesterday he pushed Coria hard, and had him rattled for a set and a half.

Coria had not dropped a set en route to the last four, whereas Henman twice had to come back from two sets to love down. In confounding those who doubted that he had the nous to make such progress at this Grand Slam tournament on his least preferred surface, Henman proved as much to himself as the doubters.

True, he played against lesser ranked opponents until yesterday, but he attacked Coria with just as much gusto and self-belief. Unfortunately that confidence began to drain in the eighth game of the second set.

Up to that point the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire had executed his plan of attack almost to perfection, and had made Coria look forlorn to the point where the 22-year-old Argentinian broke his racket in frustration and moped around the court fretting over line calls. "Playing the best clay court player in the world, I made him look pretty ordinary for a while," Henman said afterwards.

From being a set and 4-2 up, however, Henman began to fall out of step. That portentous eighth game was a mixture of brilliance and inefficiency. After taking a 30-15 lead with a slam dunk smash of which Pete Sampras would have been proud, Henman immediately double faulted. Although he was then beaten by a backhand pass he saved the break point with a forehand. Coria managed to pass Henman again, this time with a forehand, and Henman missed a forehand volley to be broken.

Although that brought Coria parity in the set, the sudden loss of composure on serve unhinged Henman for longer than he could afford to put himself in peril. Coria broke for 6-4 and then settled into an unshakeable rhythm of ground strokes that enabled him to win the next 13 games without reply. As Henman lamented: "It's a very fine line between being very aggressive and very consistent. My level dropped fractionally and that gave him a chance to pick up his level."

Those who had cheered him heartily earlier now simply wondered if he had the wherewithal even to win another game. He responded by holding serve for 3-1 and then breaking Coria to love to suggest the possibility of a comeback.

After holding serve to level the set at 3-3, Henman drew rousing support by breaking to lead 4-3, pumping his fist after cracking Coria with a forehand service return. The crowd's anticipation grew when Henman held for 5-3, winning his fifth game in a row. When it came to serving to level the match at 5-4, Henman was unable to impose himself on Coria the way he had in the opening set. A double fault to 15-30 was enough to motivate Coria, who hit a deep drive on the next point and followed up with another potent ground stoke on break point that Henman could only hit over the baseline with his backhand.

Henman still had an opportunity to take the set to a tiebreak but his serve would not heed his desires. Coria was ready to counter-attack and although Henman saved one match point he was unable to prevent Coria from converting a second.

People may take the view that losing a semi-final on foreign soil was hardly a surprise considering Henman has already lost four semi-finals on his beloved Wimbledon lawns. Such an opinion fails to take into account the enormity of the challenge Henman faces each time he comes to Roland Garros. Although he has not advanced beyond the fourth round at either the Australian Open or the US Open, both of which are played on medium-paced rubberised concrete, he always seemed more likely to advance in those championships, whereas the French Open seemed a lost cause, as it has to so many British men down the years. Mike Sangster, in 1963, was the last British man to play in a singles semi-final here.

Rather than shrug and regard clay court tournaments as a lost cause, Henman, encouraged by his coach, Paul Annacone, decided that he would combat opponents on clay in the same way as he did on the faster surfaces. With nothing to be gained by hanging back and trying to out-rally the opposition Henman used his strengths - a penetrating serve and an exquisite volley to break the rhythm of the clay specialists.

Yesterday, as his early lead evaporated, Henman began to make more than twice as many unforced errors as Coria. Had he stretched the contest to a fifth set, that may not have mattered. The problem was he had left himself too much to do.

British tennis enthusiasts are bound to worry that Henman's exertions here may damage his chances of another run at the Wimbledon title. Among those who believe he will now return to London and settle his feet on grass as smoothly as ever is Manuel Santana, the only Spanish man ever to win a Wimbledon title.

That was back in 1966 when Santana, who had won the French title in 1961 and 1964 - Rod Laver described him as "a magician on clay'' - and the US championships in 1965, translated his skills to grass.

''I think Tim will win Wimbledon this year,'' Santana said yesterday. "He will be so confident after what he has achieved here in Paris that adjusting to grass will not be a problem for him. The thing is he plays the same attacking game on all surfaces. And so much in winning comes from the mind. Mentally he is very strong now.''

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