Prime time for in-form Roddick and Federer

Agassi-Henman semi-final in the offing as old master aims to bridge 11-year gap in the title cycle and Britain's No 1 faces Ferrero barrier
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The Independent Online

If you are to trust the judgement of Cliff Drysdale, such a gentleman that he still plays tennis wearing a glove, Tim Henman has a one-in-four chance of winning Wimbledon 2003, the tournament which gets under way tomorrow, in case you had missed all those BBC blurbs.

Drysdale, one of the famous "Handsome Eight" pro group of the Seventies and a participant in the Marsh Classic seniors event in London over the past few days, nominates Roger Federer to meet Andy Roddick in the semi-final at the top half of the men's singles draw, and Andre Agassi to tackle Henman in the bottom half.

It is an intriguing choice: two youngsters in one semi-final and two of the more mature contenders in the other. And, please note, it excludes the No 1 seed and defending champion, Lleyton Hewitt, who has been handed a strange draw - two easy rounds against qualifiers followed by a hard slog. In the third round Hewitt could face Taylor Dent, the big-serving American, or Max Mirnyi, the burly 6ft 5in "Beast of Belarus". Next up, in all likelihood, is the Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, than whom nobody hits a forehand harder. And then, gulp, should come Roddick in the quarter-finals.

The Roddick who took over Hewitt's Stella Artois title at Queen's a week ago. The Roddick who equalled Greg Rusedski's speed record of 149mph with a blitz of aces. The Roddick who is in the process of answering American prayers for a contender in the mould of Pete Sampras and Agassi.

If he can get past that little lot, Hewitt will deserve the chance to hold up the Gentlemen's Trophy once more in a fortnight's time. The prospects are that he may not. A little of the bounce seems to have seeped out of him. Nor do the shots possess the same lacerating quality. Goodness, he doesn't even seem to snarl the same. Perhaps it is the influence of Kim Clijsters, the Belgian lady in his life.

Should they meet, he may well find the Roddick barrage beyond him. Not that the 20-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, is guaranteed a bus pass into the last eight. The second round is virtually certain to pit him against Rusedski, resurgent Hero Of Our Nation, who has been showing in Nottingham that his game is clicking again after nine months of injury-enforced idleness. When I broke that bit of news to Roddick as he came off a Wimbledon practice court last Tuesday, the grimace would have done Greg's heart good.

Rusedski famously thrashed Roddick in the third round at Wimbledon 2002, but since then the latter's rapid-learning process has taken in a revenge win over the British left-hander at Queen's 10 days ago, so he and his new coach, that wise old bird Brad Gilbert, will take heart as loins are girded for that particular battle.

Drysdale's other star youngster, Federer, is, at 21, just a year and three weeks older than Roddick but already competing in his fifth Wimbledon. Three of the previous bids, including last year's, have gone no further than the first round, but in 2001 he terminated the incredible run of Sampras on Centre Court before going out in the quarters to Henman. Federer has had the best year of anybody on the men's Tour, but a first-round departure from the French Open indicates that vulnerability has still not been shaken out of the Swiss system. He is, however, rightly considered, as fourth seed, one of those who comes primed with the all-round game now deemed a requirement on the All England Club's more amenable turf. The draw has been kind to the lad from Bottmingen, with no detectable trip- wires until a quarter-final against the giant Dutchman, Sjeng Schalken, who so nearly brought Hewitt crashing a year ago.

Another skyscraper from the Low Countries, Martin Verkerk, could await Henman in the third round. Verkerk was the delight of Roland Garros as he served and wisecracked his way into the final, but his undoubted power may be offset by rawness at Wimbledon, where he has never before appeared. Alex Corretja's preference to spend time with his new-born daughter has meant a new first-round opponent for Henman. Accordingly the place in the tumbril is occupied by Thomas Zib, a lucky loser from qualifying who comes from the Czech Republic and is ranked 157.

Corretja is not the only late departure from the draw. His friend and fellow Catalan, Albert Costa, has withdrawn, citing injury, as has Marat Safin, troubled by an aching wrist. However, the best of the Spaniards, Juan Carlos Ferrero, could give Henman the opportunity to avenge his recent French Open loss in the quarter-finals. First, though, in pursuit of a fifth semi-final in six years, Henman needs to see off David Nalbandian, the Argentinian who got to the final last year and who has prospered so mightily since that he is seeded sixth.

The removal of the dangerous Safin will have been noted by Agassi as he plots to lift the title he last captured 11 long years ago, when he had hair and attitude. Still, the 33-year-old American may need to thrust aside such as Younes El Aynaoui and last year's semi-finalist Xavier Malisse of Belgium before the prospect of a quarter-final with the Argentinian who put him out in Paris, Guillermo Coria. All of this looks eminently achievable and Agassi, runner-up and twice semi-finalist in the last four years, will nurse realistic hopes of a repeat of his 1992 triumph, an even bigger gap than the nine years between Bill Tilden's Wimbledons in 1921 and 1930, or Jimmy Connors' successes in 1974 and 1982.

Speaking of Belgians, the women's competition appears a straight battle between the sorority of the Williamses and the Belgian pair, Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne. Venus and Serena have copped the honours for the past three years, Venus in 2000 and 2001 and Serena in 2002, while Clijsters and Henin contested the French Open final a fortnight ago and Henin was Wimbledon finalist in 2001. Since that time, Venus's power has declined; she has been injured and is distracted by her many other interests. On Friday, for example, she was showing off her new dress, when the expenditure of sweat on a grass practice court might have been wiser.

Henin is confident the wrist injury she suffered in the Ordina Open final against Clijsters yesterday will not jeopardise her hopes. After that remarkable run of four Grand Slams in a row was ended by Henin in the Roland Garros semi-finals, Serena will be pawing at the turf and tough to overthrow. Of the other leading contenders, Jennifer Capriati is in decline, the 1999 champion, Lindsay Davenport, needs surgery on a foot problem, and Amélie Mauresmo dropped out on Friday with rib damage.

So it's up to Kim and Justine, and this time the task of denying the champion may be just beyond them.