Henman's triumph can shape the future

British No 1 suggests best years may yet be to come after outstanding sequence culminates in biggest title to date
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Veteran Tim Henman-watchers in the media have learned over the years to not count their superlatives until they are hatched. The past week has been an exception. The British No 1 conducted a masterclass in defeating three of the finest players in the world and capped it all by holding his nerve in yesterday's final against Andrei Pavel, of Romania, a fellow unseeded competitor.

The Paris Masters is the biggest championship the 29-year-old Henman has won in his 10-year professional career. Unlike his previous 10 ATP titles, the one here is only one step below Wimbledon and the three other Grand Slam tournaments. The only other British representative to have won a Masters series title was Greg Rusedksi, who defeated Pete Sampras in Paris in 1998.

A 14,000 crowd in the Palais Omnisports gave Henman a standing ovation. This was not only for his 6-2, 7-6, 7-6 victory against Pavel. It was because his stylish displays against Sebastien Grosjean, Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, and Andy Roddick, the United States Open champion and new world No 1, gave spectators an irresistible reminder that tennis can be a game of light and shade, in contrast to the customary thunder.

"Merci beaucoup," Henman said over the microphone after receiving the "l'arbric de Fanti" trophy, along with his first Waterford Crystal Masters Shield and a cheque for £420,000. The applause he received was thoroughly deserved after his cool, assertive campaign to win a tournament he used to dread, having not previously advanced beyond the third round here.

"This time, I was very calm and very strong between the ears," he said. "That's very important in sport at this level."

Perhaps Henman's most satisfying reward was to raise his world ranking from No 40 to 14 in the past month as he strives to put himself in a challenging position for next year. Last November, after surgery to his right shoulder, Henman spoke optimistically about his prospects of making a full recovery. But it was not until May that he felt pain-free and was playing "proper tennis" again.

Since passing his 29th birthday in September, Henman has been subjected to increased scepticism concerning his ability to hold back the years and make a major impact on the sport to compare with his four Wimbledon semi-finals. Yesterday he was entitled to smile with pride after showing style and resilience to triumph on a foreign court.

Paris Bercy is not Wimbledon, of course, but, as Henman said: "Apples and oranges, isn't it? One is obviously at home, the biggest tournament in the world. But at that tournament I've always finished with a loss. Here I've finished with a win. This is my greatest achievement. I'm going to make sure there's bigger things to come."

Roddick, outgunned by Henman in two tie-breaks in their semi-final on Saturday, said: "People were panicking on Andre [Agassi] and Pete [Sampras] when they were 27, and look what they've done since then. You never know. Maybe Tim only has three years left, but maybe those will be his best three years."

After Henman's splendid win against Roddick, the worry was that a spectacular week would be spoiled by anti-climax if he failed to lift his game again for the final against Pavel, another 29-year-old whose season has been blighted by injuries - to his back and wrist. The Romanian gained entry at the last moment with a protected ranking of 44 (his true position was 191).

He started the tournament by beating the Russian, Nikolay Davydenko, who was ranked No 46, after a run of seven consecutive defeats, and had to finish the job against Pavel, another of the game's lesser names. "My first and last matches were probably the toughest of the week," Henman said.

"OK, [when I came into] the first round, I didn't have a particularly good record here and I was a little unsure of the conditions. But I felt from the word go I was in a good frame of mind and playing the right type of tennis. But then, after getting through to the final - having lost in two previous Masters Series finals - suddenly I really did feel the emphasis was in me.

"It was a great test of my mental strength and character to make sure that I went out there and played the same way."

The opening set was virtually a doddle for Henman after he broke for 3-2, Pavel helping his cause by double-faulting to 5-2. When the Romanian lost his serve in the opening game of the second set, Henman appeared to be off and running. But errors crept in, and he was broken when serving for the set at 5-4, after which his supporters must have thought of reaching for the Valium.

Having taken a 5-2 lead in the tie-break, Henman went on to double-fault on his first set point, at 6-4. Pavel pulled back to 6-6 but threw down his racket in frustration after losing the next point and tossed his racket all the way back to his chair after netting a backhand on Henman's third set point.

Henman was under pressure from the determined Pavel for much the third set, but his composure returned in the second tie-break. He swept to a 5-1 lead and converted his first match point, at 6-2.

The joy and relief of one particular spectator was spectacular. He had spent the match either waving a "Tennis Masters Tim" banner or holding it against his face in trepidation. Henman made sure to toss him his racket at the conclusion and gave him a hug at the side of the court.

"It was 'Skippy'," Henman said. "He's a regular at the Masters Series. He works in the television compound, rigging and derigging. He works harder than the rest of us put together."

One remarkable week: Henman's route to Paris glory

Nikolay Davydenko (Rus) (world No 46)
Henman won 6-3, 6-4

Sebastien Grosjean (Fr) (world No 11)
Henman won 3-6, 6-4, 7-5

Gustavo Kuerten (Br) (world No 17 and three-times French Open champion)
Henman won 6-4, 6-2

Roger Federer (Swit) (world No 3 and Wimbledon champion)
Henman won 7-6, 6-1

Andy Roddick (US) (world No 2 and current US Open champion)
Henman won 7-6, 7-6

Andrei Pavel (Rom) (world No 191)
Henman won 6-2, 7-6, 7-6