Tim Henman beat Lleyton Hewitt. It is a sentence Henman probably thought he might never read after eight successive defeats against the Australian, but the 31-year-old Briton finally got his man here yesterday in the second round of the Nasdaq-100 Open, winning 7-6, 6-3 after a contest lasting an hour and three-quarters. No wonder he clenched his fist in celebration.
Hewitt had been Henman's bête noire ever since their first meeting in Arizona six years ago. The Australian has even got the better of Henman three times on grass and when they last met in competition, on Cincinnati's hard courts in 2004, Hewitt lost only five games.
However, a more recent encounter, combined with a slide in form which has seen Hewitt drop to No 14 in the world rankings, had given Henman reason for hope. They played a practice match in Indian Wells last week which Henman won 6-3, 6-3 and the experience persuaded the Briton to adopt a different strategy. In the past he had always taken an aggressive approach, moving into the net at every opportunity, only for the former Wimbledon champion to relish the target his opponent presented and hit a succession of winning passing shots.
The new game plan was clear from the start. Henman was prepared to bide his time and it was not until the third point of the third game that he hit his first volley. Although he approached the net carefully, Henman still dictated the pace. He hit several outstanding backhand winners down the line and would have won the first set earlier but for a number of poor forehands and the problems posed at one end where he had trouble with the strong sun and a stiff breeze.
As it was, the first set developed into a cliffhanger lasting an hour and 12 minutes. Both players dropped serve twice in the first eight games before Henman broke to lead 6-5. A remarkable game followed as a seemingly nervous Henman failed to convert five set points before Hewitt levelled the scores when the Briton put an attempted drop volley into the net.
The drama continued in the tie-break. Henman led 4-1 with two breaks, only for Hewitt to win the next four points. When Henman hit a backhand winner at 6-5 it was no more than he deserved, for he had played nearly all the best tennis of the set.
Despite a brief wobble in the fourth game, when Henman wasted two points for a 4-0 lead, the outcome of the second set was rarely in doubt and victory was clinched by a forehand volley following an excellent approach shot. With Henman you learn never to take anything for granted, but there is every chance of further progress as his next opponent is Simon Greul, a 25-year-old German ranked No 130 in the world who yesterday surprised the No 17 seed, Slovakia's Dominik Hrbaty.
"I had to be a lot more patient, obviously a lot more selective when I came forward," Henman said afterwards. "With the way I've played on clay over the years I've got a lot more confidence in my baseline game, but it's still difficult for me. There are still times where I see a second serve and I say: 'I'm coming in here.' Then I have to say: 'Maybe not. If I'm hitting the ball well from the baseline, let's see if I can open up an opportunity.' And I did that well."
He added: "I still would like to think that for the majority of my matches I'm going to be the one that can look to get forward and chip and charge and be aggressive, because that's the way that I feel more comfortable and I think I'm better at it. But you know what, it's great to beat a player of Hewitt's calibre playing a different kind of style"