Henman's sacrilege: clay more enjoyable than grass

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Tim Henman has the opportunity to break more new ground here today by reaching the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters for the first time, thereby continuing his late-flowering love affair with clay courts.

Due to play Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, who has not taken a set off him in their three previous matches, Henman went so far yesterday as to commit the sacrilege of saying he now enjoys playing on the red stuff more than Wimbledon's grass. "I wouldn't say clay is my best surface, but it's definitely one of my most enjoyable," the British No 1 said after defeating Nicolas Massu, of Chile, 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the third round at the Foro Italico.

"In all honesty, what's disappointing about Wimbledon is how much I really don't enjoy playing on grass now because it's changed so much over the last three or four years. It's my favourite place to play in terms of everything else."

Although the 30-year-old Henman has criticised the All England Club's development of ryegrass courts before, this is the first time he has brought slow clay courts into the equation. "I find it sometimes harder to come in on a grass court than I do on, say, a clay court now," the fourth-seeded Henman said.

"Even here [in Rome] if you're hitting a good shot, you feel like it goes through the court. I think a combination with the grass changing to 100 per cent rye, and the ball [being] so soft it almost just stops and sits up, is why you've seen different styles being so much more successful at Wimbledon."

Henman followed up his first-round win against the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerton by beating Massu, who is trying to find his form after a stress fracture to his right foot. Henman, none the less, was guilty of only one blip, double-faulting to lose serve at 3-0 in the second set, en route to reaching the last 16 for the third time.

Richard Gasquet, the 18-year-old French qualifier, who defeated Roger Federer in Monte Carlo, seemed awestruck at the sight of the 35-year-old Andre Agassi on the other side of the net yesterday. After saving three break points in the opening game, Agassi thundered groundstrokes past the nervous Gasquet to win, 6-2, 6-3.

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