According to Tim Henman, "the forecast is not looking too clever". Presumably, he was referring to the weather. With regard to his tennis, the portents look good as the British No 1 moves steadily towards Wimbledon.
Henman advanced to the semi-finals of the Stella Artois Championship here yesterday. The last time that happened, in 1999, he reached the final, losing narrowly to Pete Sampras. Less than three weeks later, Henman played Sampras again, this time in the Wimbledon semi-finals for the second year in succession. The great American prevailed again after dropping the opening set.
Sampras's sense of déjà vu may be stronger, however, as he is about to play Lleyton Hewitt in a reprise of last year's final, though hoping to improve on that performance, in which he was defeated by the feisty young Australian.
Greg Rusedski met with that misfortune yesterday, finding no answer to Hewitt's speed and brilliant groundstroke play in the quarter-finals. Hewitt, playing his second match of the day, won 6-4, 6-4 after 72 minutes, before the end of which the British No 2 became so frustrated with his inability to make telling returns of serve that he threw his racket to the ground. "I was a little bit disappointed today. We had the right strategy but the execution wasn't there," he said before leaving to play in next week's Nottingham Open.
Before we get carried away about Henman, however, it is important to consider that his semi-final opponent today is South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, who won the title in 1992, defeating Shuzo Matsuoka, of Japan, in the final, and reached the final again in 1993, losing to Michael Stich.
Ferreira is approaching 30, but, as Henman says, "he is able to play on any surface." Confirmation of that came on an indoor hard court in Stuttgart last October, when the South African defeated Australia's Hewitt in the final of the Tennis Masters Series event.
Generally comfortable on the lawns, the seventh-seeded Ferreira has not dropped a set in beating Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, and two Dutchmen, Raemon Sluiter and Peter Wessels, in his advance to the semi-finals. He has not played Henman on grass before, and the last of their four previous contests was almost three years ago.
Henman won that one, on a hard court in Stockholm, to level their head-to-head, 2-2, at the same taking a vital step towards qualifying for the ATP Championship in Hanover. But Henman also remembers a humbling experience at the 1997 United States Open, when Ferreira eliminated him in straight sets.
Having put his search for a new coach on hold until after Wimbledon, Henman is relying on his natural grass-court skills plus fitness work with his trainer, Kieron Voster, a South African who used to travel with Ferreira. "There's obviously that history there," Henman says, "but there are not too many hidden secrets. On grass, it boils down to who performs on the day."
Henman's display was patchy in the quarter-finals yesterday. He accounted for Paradorn Srichaphan, of Thailand, 7-6, 6-3, but not without some moments of uncertainty against the man he defeated in the first round at Wimbledon last year.
Henman could only have made a better start to the match if he had converted either of the two break points that would have given him a 3-0 lead. Instead, Srichaphan held, broke back for 2-2, and was not in trouble again until double-faulting twice to give Henman the chance to serve for the set at 6-5.
Srichaphan then hit two magnificent cross-court service returns on the way to breaking Henman for 6-6, and although the Briton won the first four points of the tie-break, he was hauled back to 4-4, eventually hitting a smash to convert his first set point, securing the shoot-out, 7-4.
Having contested three tie-breaks in his previous match, against Australia's Wayne Arthurs, Henman could be said to have experience on his side. In the second set, however, two more double-faults by Srichaphan allowed Henman to break for 3-1. After that, the spectators only became nervous when Henman was unable to convert his first three match points in the ninth game. He delivered on the fourth seconds before a downpour interrupted play for 45 minutes.
"I wasn't able to play as well as I did yesterday, because he returned better and stayed on the baseline, not giving me a target to pass," Henman said. Sampras then arrived on the Centre Court for his second match of the day. He had already completed the previous evening's unfinished business with Jan Siemerink, defeating the Dutchman, 6-3, 6-4, on his fifth match point. Next came the young American Jan-Michael Gambill in the quarter-finals.
Gambill, the sixth seed, made a strong challenge in the opening set until it came to a tie-break, in which he salvaged only one point. Gambill's confidence returned in the second set, in which he again pushed his compatriot. But Sampras's superiority on the lawns enabled took him to victory, 7-6, 7-5.Reuse content