Henman's power blows away Sargsian

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman has rarely looked better as he enjoys the longest winning sequence of his career: nine matches in a row, 17 sets in a row - raising the possibility of his winning back-to-back ATP tournaments for the first time in his career.

Building on his inspirational triumph at the Paris Masters last November, the British No1 advanced to the semi-finals of the Qatar Open yesterday, overwhelming Sargis Sargsian, of Armenia, 6-3, 6-1, after 66 minutes in windy conditions.

Henman, who did not give Sargsian even the sniff of a break point and has only lost his serve once - against David Sanchez, of Spain, in the opening round - is the top seed left in the tournament, at No 7. The only other seeded player to survive is Agustin Calleri, of Argentina, the No 8, who plays Nicolas Escude, of France, in today's other semi-final.

The only ominous feature is that Goran Ivanisevic's Croatian buddy, Ivan Ljubicic, the player who stands between Henman and tomorrow's final, is bursting with confidence after overcoming the fourth-seeded Sebastien Grosjean, of France, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

Ljubicic, it may be remembered, eliminated Henman in straight sets in the opening round in Rotterdam a year ago, when the pride of Oxfordshire first ventured back on the court after shoulder surgery.

Henman knows that the aggressive Ljubicic, ranked No 42, presents a greater challenge than the 39th-ranked Sargsian, who moved forward from his baseline retreat at his peril, even though Henman was delighted to offer himself as a target to be passed.

It took Henman nine minutes to break Sargsian in the opening game, producing a backhand winner on his third opportunity, after which Henman's command of the net reduced his opponent to a quivering counter-puncher. Henman broke a second time at 5-3, creating his third set point with an impressive stop-volley and then benefiting from a Sargsian error.

Henman passed Sargsian to break for 2-0 in the second set and broke again for 5-1 before serving the match out, Sargsian netting a backhand return on the first match point.

"I was playing the conditions well and putting as much pressure as I could on him," Henman said. "The best shot to have when it's swirling is the volley, and I was maintaining my aggression. I've been working very hard on my serve, and my serve had very little to do with the outcome today. I created a lot of opportunities to come in on my second shot."

Ljubicic was jubilant after defeating Grosjean. "I am pleased not only with the result but with the way I played. It was one of the best matches of my career. I played for two hours without any up and downs. I tried to enjoy the way I played, not going for a winner at any price. I was just playing against the ball, not against the opponent."

Henman said: "It's pretty obvious [Ljubicic's] game is centered around his serve. It's one of the best serves around - and if you are able to get that back he's very aggressive from the baseline. It will be a difficult match for me."

Ljubicic reinforced Henman's point when he said: "My way of thinking is that my serve is one of my best shots, so why not go with my best shot, why not also go for the second serve? Otherwise the ball will come back on my weaker shots. It's going to be a hard match for both of us, but I'm confident, of course. I've played in 11 semi-finals and won one title. I want to improve that."

Concerning last year's match in Rotterdam, Henman said: "He served incredibly that day, and the outcome was not a downfall for me, just a big step to get back. In the last 10 or 11 months my game has come a long way."

He added: "When I lost to [David] Nalbandian in Basle [last October], everything I tried to do was too forced. I was too tight. It was more by luck than design that I won in Paris, where my attitude was that if lost I was going to be pretty happy, because it would bring an end to the year.

"I was very relaxed and loose in Paris. Obviously, it's not going to work every time, but it's going to give me my best opportunity."