Memories hearten Henman's challenge

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The Independent Online

Deja vu may be too much for Tim Henman to expect when he defends the Paris Masters title this week, having also advanced to the semi-finals at the French Open across the city at Roland Garros in June. But a fraction of those achievements will do.

Deja vu may be too much for Tim Henman to expect when he defends the Paris Masters title this week, having also advanced to the semi-finals at the French Open across the city at Roland Garros in June. But a fraction of those achievements will do.

Given a bye in the first round, the British No 1 needs to win two matches at the Palais Omnisports de Bercy to reach the quarter-finals and guarantee his place in the Masters Cup in Houston a fortnight hence.

Henman is under pressure, in contrast to 12 months ago when he came to Paris and put a gloss on a dismal season which took him closer to Euston than Houston. The current situation is reflected by an expected gathering of 12 British tennis journalists, whose pencils may have been sharpened by Henman's comments to the Swiss press in Basle last week.

British tennis writers, Henman was quoted as saying, "are probably the worst in the world and don't understand the technicalities of the game." Many of our dozy dozen will accept Henman's assessment on a knock-for-knock basis, though some may be offended. Ink may be spilled.

As usual, it depends on what Henman does on the court. Seeded No 3, he will play either Paradorn Srichaphan, of Thailand, or Mariano Zabaleta, of Argentina, in the second round. If Henman wins that one, he may face the Czech Jiri Novak, who dispatched him from the Athens Olympics and defeated him in the quarter-finals in Basle last week on route to the title.

The 16th-seeded Novak must first deal with either Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden, or Mikhail Youzhny, of Russia, who on Saturday beat Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, in the semi-finals in St Petersburg.

Henman seemed lively enough yesterday when he practised with Guillermo Canas, of Argentina, and we must hope that the supplements he was prescribed for a magnesium deficiency after the Madrid Masters, are doing their work.

It would be disappointing if Henman fell short of the Masters Cup. He has only qualified for the ATP Tour finale once, in 1998, having appeared as a substitute the previous year. But any sense of anticlimax would have to be weighed against the major strides the 30-year-old from Oxfordshire made at the French Open and in reaching the US Open semi-finals this season.

This week we ought to be celebrating the anniversary of Henman's first Masters Series title and of the start of his successful association with Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras's former coach. Twelve months ago, Henman decided to seek Annacone's help.

"The turning point for me was my loss to [David] Nalbandian in Basle, where I played very poorly," Henman said. "I decided to give Paul a call to talk through a few things about my game. I also spoke to him before my match with [Sébastien] Grosjean, as I'd lost to him in a couple of big matches in the summer. Paul gave me a couple of things to focus on and they worked really well."

Annacone told him to be more aggressive with his serve and play his natural attacking game. Henman went on to defeat Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Andrei Pavel to win the title.

¿ In yesterday's final of the Stockholm Open, Sweden's Thomas Johansson overcame the top seed, Andre Agassi 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 to take his first title since the 2002 Australian Open.

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