Tim Henman won the first four games of his quarter-final at the Dubai Duty Free Open here last night before Thomas Johansson, the Australian Open champion, arrived on the scene to replace a hapless Swedish doppelgänger who had been unable to keep a ball in court. The genuine Johansson won the next nine games in a row en route to a 6-4, 6-3 victory.
It was a bizarre match in several ways. Johansson, advised by his coach that a fireworks display was about to start nearby to mark the opening of the Dubai Shopping Festival, came out wearing ear-plugs. "Good forward planning," Henman commented afterwards, smiling. "I'd love to say that was why I lost. I heard Romano [Grillotti, the Italian umpire] say a moment before the fireworks started, 'No flash photography'."
Johansson discarded the plugs even before the sky was decorated with spectacular coloured patterns accompanied by loud bangs. "Wearing the ear-plugs was a bad idea," he said. "I couldn't hear the sound of the ball on the racket strings."
Henman did well to retain his sense of humour to mask a disappointing turn of events. The course of the match changed dramatically from the moment the British No 1, attempting to create a break point for 5-0, hit a smash wide.
"It wasn't exactly as if I started to play differently," he said. "Thomas raised his level. I dominated the first four games and then the reverse was the case."
Although Henman won their three previous matches, the most recent of those was in Adelaide early last year, since when Johansson has gained the confidence of a Grand Slam champion. Moreover, he is not averse to vanquishing Brits, having beaten Greg Rusedski in the fifth rubber in Birmingham last month to put Sweden into the second round of the Davis Cup.
Henman, the fifth seed, never stop trying even though the points kept flashing on the scoreboard in his third-seeded opponent's favour. Henman had two break points in the opening game of the second set, missing a backhand when attempting to return a second serve on the first chance. On the second, he planted the ball on Johansson's racket instead of angling the shot.
Having recovered from 1-4 to 3-5, Henman saved Johansson's first match point and created a break point, only to net a forehand half-volley after Johansson drove a shot from the baseline. In today's semi-finals Johansson plays Younes El Aynaoui, of Morocco, who won a thrilling match against Germany's Rainer Schuettler, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3. In the other sem-final, Jiri Novak and will meet Fabrice Santoro.
Santoro won a competitive contest against Ivan Lubicic, of Croatia, 6-4, 7-6, and Novak having had the next best thing to a walk-over against Yevgeny Kefelnikov, defeating the second seed 6-1, 6-1.
"I've lost the four other matches I've played against him," Novak said, "It was always cat and mouse, and I was the mouse. It cannot happen that I can beat him, 6-1, 6-1. Maybe he wasn't fighting in that match."
* Anna Kournikova beat the Slovakian Janette Husarova 6-3, 6-4 on Thursday to reach her third semi-final of the year at the Mexican Open. The Russian is still seeking her maiden WTA Tour singles title.
* Andre Agassi needed only 63 minutes to beat his friend and practice partner Sargis Sargsian 6-2, 6-4 in San Jose yesterday. Lleyton Hewitt fought off four match points to beat Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan 6-7, 6-4, 7-6.Reuse content