Henman's rise raises hopes for a British champion

Tim Henman may never have a better opportunity of winning Wimbledon than he does now. He is fit, he is experienced, he has faith in his attacking style, and - as late developers go - he is probably in his prime at the age of 29.

As always, there are reservations, one of which was underlined in conversation with Frew McMillan, the eloquent television commentator and former doubles champion. McMillan, a South African who made his home in Bristol, also believes this could be Henman's year. But, as he pointed out, while the British No 1 has improved immensely during the past 12 months, so, too, have his accomplished younger rivals.

Roger Federer, the stylish, 22-year-old Swiss defending champion. whose game is both potent and poetic, has the talent to be the most outstanding world No 1 since Pete Sampras. Having ended last year by winning the Masters Cup, Federer opened this year by winning the Australian Open.

The 21-year-old American Andy Roddick, dazzled by Federer in last year's Wimbledon semi-finals, went on to win the US Open. Roddick attacks from the baseline. He has the fastest serve ever recorded - 153mph - and also has a solid return game, backed by a fierce forehand and ground-strokes honed on the concrete courts of Florida.

Then there is Lleyton Hewitt, the feisty Australian whose battles with the ATP Tour executive are as keenly fought as his matches and have made him seem like a veteran at 23. With a fleet-footed style somewhere between those of Michael Chang and Andre Agassi, Hewitt's crisp returns and angled ground-strokes did for Sampras in the 2001 US Open final.

Hewitt was able to build on the confidence he gained from that triumph, though not as quickly as many observers expected. Debilitated by illness, he lost in the opening round at the 2002 Australian Open and was eliminated in the fourth round of the French Open before blossoming again on Wimbledon's lawns. Hewitt defeated Henman in the semi-finals and out-played David Nalbandian, of Argentina in the final.

A year ago, Hewitt lost in the first round at Wimbledon, beaten into the ground by a giant Croatian, Ivo Karlovic, who is due to join his iconic compatriot, Goran Ivanisevic, in front of a television screen tonight to cheer for his country's footballers against England in Euro 2004.

Ivanisevic is finally able to stay on his feet long enough to make a sentimental journey to the All England Club. Who could ever forget how the popular Ivanisevic and his Teletubbies escaped from Henman's clutches over three days of rain delays en route to defeating Pat Rafter in the 2001 final?

As for Hewitt, there are signs that he is back in the groove, and the ominous statistic is that the Australian has defeated Henman in all seven of their matches. Much can happen, however, before they can meet for an eighth time. The seedings and the draw have ensured that Henman will only run into either Hewitt or Federer if he advances to the first Grand Slam final of his career and becomes Briton's first Wimbledon men's singles finalist since 1938, when Bunny Austin lost to the American Don Budge.

Even Sampras, who won the title seven times and defeated Henman in two of the Oxfordshire player's four semi-finals, would agree that it takes pluck and luck as well as ability to win a major championship: good fortune, plus the knack of playing through touch-and-go matches if you have an off day.

If Henman is able to work his way past an assortment of opponents in the early rounds, and has the wherewithal to overcome Mark Philippoussis, a familiar foe, in the last 16 (assuming the big-serving Australian is still around), the tide of Henmania will again submerge Henman Hill.

Nalbandian, projected to be the fifth-seeded Henman's quarter-final opponent, injured a rib during an exhibition match last week, and withdrew on Saturday. So we may see Henman duel with the second-seeded Roddick for a place in the final.

Eight days ago, Roddick defeated Sébastien Grosjean, of France, to retain the Stella Artois Championship at Queen's Club in a repeat of the 2003 final. Grosjean, it may be remembered, last year defeated Henman in the semi-finals at Queen's and the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, capitalising on Henman's tentative serving.

"If I was being brutally honest," Henman says, "I would look back at the Grosjean match and make sure I didn't do anything the same."

Roddick, asked to assess the field, said: "Roger's the favourite. Tim's got to be up there. He's one of the most experienced grass-court players and he's been playing well all year. I think Lleyton's up there. He's a former champion, a guy who just knows how to win matches. I think I'm in that mix as well. Then it gets tricky. Obviously Sébastien's there. There are probably 10 guys or so who have the potential to win."

Note that Philippoussis, last year's runner-up, is not in Roddick's list. "He's always a threat," the American said, "but there are contenders and there are favourites. He's always a contender on grass, but I don't think he's been playing up to his best lately."

Roddick, who is certainly up to speed, does not consider he has hit form too soon. "I don't believe in the whole peaking too early theory," he said. "I'm either playing well, or I'm not quite comfortable with how I'm playing. I've always been pretty simple like that. It's kind of weird for me to think, 'OK, lose in the semis'. I'm not thinking, 'OK, well maybe I didn't peak'. I just want to play well. I'll play well when I can, and take my wins when I can."

Although Roddick's booming first serves capture the headlines, many players would trade their best shot for his second delivery. "I'm hitting my second serve really big right now," he said. "That's the difference. I'm not sure if I've served this well before. It's encouraging. I have a lot of confidence in it. I'm not second-guessing it. Playing on grass obviously makes it a little easier, because going for a second serve is a pretty high percentage play."

Sampras may have gone, but his successors have cut their teeth and bite hard. It is time for Henman to make his most decisive move - preferably against Federer in a final that will live in the memory.

It is difficult to be so excited about the women's tournament, particularly in the absence of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, the two Belgians who might have intervened in the annual procession by the Williams sisters.

Injury and illness caught up with Henin and Clijsters just when Serena and Venus Williams were on their way back from ailments that had troubled them ever since they left the All England Club last July with silverwear for their Florida home for the fourth year in a row.

Not that the Williamses have approached anything like their former overwhelming power. They were disappointing at the French Open, where only their outfits caught the eye, if not the imagination.

"We both basically tried to commit suicide there," Serena said yesterday. "We had to get over it quickly, because we don't want to bring the bad karma to Wimbledon." Nonetheless, it is difficult to see them being upstaged at Wimbledon, unless their American compatriots Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati stage a revival, or the Williamses contrive to beat themselves before they get to play each other.

The Russians broke through in Paris, where Anastasia Myskina virtually had the final served to her by the petrified, double-faulting fellow Muscovite, Elena Dementieva. Perhaps the Russians can now extend their success to SW19, where, although Myskina is the second seed, others may be ready to follow her lead.

Maria Sharapova, a 17-year-old from Siberia via Florida, who reached the fourth round last year, is seeded to meet the 21-year-old Elena Bovina, from Moscow, in the third round. Both are in the same quarter as Myskina and Dementieva.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, a sturdy competitor from St Petersburg, who is due to mark her 19th birthday next Sunday, arrives at Wimbledon in the once familiar manner of her former doubles partner, Martina Navratilova - with the Eastbourne title in her bag.

In Saturday's Hastings Direct final, Kuznetsova defeated Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, whose healthier figure suggests her dietary problems are behind her. Hantuchova prevailed against Amélie Mauresmo, of France, in the semi-finals in the most exciting contest of the tournament.

Kuznetsova may have what it takes to end Serena's reign.

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