Hrbaty ensures unhappy ending for Henman

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To be fair, Tim Henman did not say clay was his best surface, only one of his most enjoyable. Yesterday it was neither. The British No 1 lost for the first time to Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, in the third round at the Rome Masters, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

To be fair, Tim Henman did not say clay was his best surface, only one of his most enjoyable. Yesterday it was neither. The British No 1 lost for the first time to Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, in the third round at the Rome Masters, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

Hrbaty, who had only taken one set off Henman in their three previous meetings - in the rain-interrupted quarter-finals at last year's US Open - amended the record yesterday when they played for the first time on clay.

The Slovakian's deep, accurate, angled ground-strokes made it more difficult for the fourth-seeded Henman to attack the net as much as he would have liked, and at times the Oxfordshire player's demeanour suggested that he was unlikely to add to his wins against Gustavo Kuerten and Nicolas Massu in the earlier rounds.

To cap an unhappy afternoon, Henman was warned by the umpire, Norm Cryst, for an audible obscenity during the change-over after losing his serve for 2-3 in the final set.

"I heard a few swear words in French the other day," Henman said. "So I said to the umpire, 'Is it all right to swear in French?' But I didn't have a leg to stand on." Henman was frustrated because, after levelling the match in the second set, he was unable to take the momentum into the decider.

The opening game of the final set was disappointing for Henman after Hrbaty raced to the net and hit a winner off an angled forehand drop shot for 15-15. Henman subsequently hit a forehand long, double-faulted to 15-40, saved the first break point with an ace, and then missed a forehand after Hrbaty returned a second serve.

Although Henman recovered the break for 2-2, he netted a backhand in the fifth game, giving his opponent the incentive to snatch the lead again. Even so, Henman did not have the best of luck at 30-40 when, after improvising a shot off a net cord, he was passed by a backhand.

Hrbaty, who never looked likely to be caught again, converted his first match point with a backhand pass down the line.

"Dominik has a bigger margin for error on this surface," Henman said, "He made so few, which is a credit to him. He played some good stuff, especially in the first set, and handled my slow slice well.

"I thought I did a good job of turning things around in the second set and was playing some great tennis, but then there were two key moments in the third set - at 15-0 in the first game and then at 2-2, when he got a bit fortunate." So, while Henman goes on to the typically heavy conditions at the Hamburg Masters next week to continue his preparation for the French Open, Hrbaty will play Andre Agassi in today's quarter-finals here.

The sixth-seeded Agassi defeated Ivan Ljubicic, of Croatia, 7-6, 6-3. Ljubicic, who beat both Agassi and Andy Roddick in the first round of the Davis Cup in California in March, was unable to extend the Las Vegan here. "Today I felt really good about where my game was," Agassi said.

Roddick, the top seed, lost in extraordinary circumstances to Fernando Verdasco, of Spain, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4. The American had four match points at 5-3 in the second set - and gave one of them away. The umpire had called the match in Roddick's favour, and the players were walking towards the net to shake hands when Roddick glanced down to the mark where Verdasco's serve had landed and decided it had, in fact, landed on the "T" of the service lines. He conceded the point and the match carried on.

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