Ronald Atkin: Henman discovers the time of his life

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The Independent Online

In three months Tim Henman will be 30, an age when tennis players are reckoned to be well past their prime. But Henman, four times a Wimbledon semi-finalist, is convinced his best times are ahead, and the way he has been playing at Roland Garros he may just be right.

Into today's fourth round for the first time in nine tries, Henman is talking confidently and playing convincingly on the clay courts which have proved quicksand to British hopes for so long. That confidence has been implanted by Paul Annacone, who worked with Pete Sampras so successfully for so long, and from Henman's head it has taken root in his racket arm.

Despite the draining effects of a stubborn virus and finding himself two sets down on the opening day here, Tim bounced back spectacularly. Nine sets in succession have been won since that low point and if he defeats the left-handed French wild card, Michael Llodra, he will become the first Briton to reach the last eight of the French Open since Roger Taylor 31 years ago.

So stricken was Friday's third-round opponent, Galo Blanco, by the new-look Henman's effortless superiority that he enquired afterwards how much he owed Tim for the lesson and tipped the British No 1 to win the title. Henman himself would not be drawn into such dangerous areas of speculation but his whole bearing, virus or not, indicates belief that it could happen. "Each match I play now I think I can win," was how he put it.

"When I reflect on where I'm at now I feel very positive about the things I am trying to do. There is no question I am playing far better than I have ever played before. Can it get even better? Of course it can. Good things are happening. I have got a lot of ability, I'm a good athlete and I try hard. Those are things that get you to a level. I could stay between eight and 15 in the world rankings, that's my standard if you like. But if I'm going to be really committed to my style of play and my strengths I can go higher and I intend to find out.

"I have no idea how good I can be. Certainly a lot better than I am at the moment. My expectations get higher as I find out I can play this level of tennis and I am very secure in my beliefs, rather than just viewing it in terms of success and failure. If that was the case I probably wouldn't still be playing."

Henman came close to not playing beyond the opening Monday of the French, two sets down to the French journeyman, Cyril Saulnier. "Two or three years ago I wouldn't have been able to get through that," he said. "That I managed to do so is not only because I am a better player but because I am handling myself better on court. I would have got frustrated and started trying even harder and that would just have had a negative effect.

"At the beginning of the third set I just told myself to shut my mouth and get on with it. I am now thinking very clearly and committing to my style of play and breaking it down to every point. Before, I could only do that for 20 minutes before I became distracted."

This process had its beginnings last October, when he rang Annacone, an acquaintance from the days of Henman's friendship with Sampras. He had just lost to David Nalbandian in Basle and needed a shoulder to lean on, if not to cry on. "It wasn't like I was looking for a coach, just a case of: 'What do you really think? Am I really hopeless? I want to hear your opinion.'

"Something was missing. I know I have the ability but I wasn't replicating the way I can play often enough in matches. Paul has had a big impact on that. I understand more about how to go about it. My success emphasises the point that age is irrelevant. I just have to make sure I stay healthy. Tennis players are supposed to peak around 25, but how could I be at my peak at that age when I didn't break into the top 100 until I was 21? It is phenomenal that people like Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero can be that good that young but that's not the way my game developed.

"At 17 I wasn't physically strong enough. But that is my career path. Even when I look back on my shoulder injury there are positives. I have a whole different outlook on my preparation. I am twice as strong as before that injury and that has suddenly helped my serve." As Annacone pointed out yesterday: "At the age of 29 Tim is finally beginning to understand how he has got to play. As a top 10 player you shouldn't really care what the other guy does."

That the point has been taken was shown by the way Henman has charged the net and intimidated opponents here. "Who plays like me any more?" he said. "A lot of people really dislike having to play against my style, they are suddenly taken out of their comfort zone. If I believe I am the best volleyer, that is a big asset. Why be on the baseline? Let's get forward. If I can play this way on clay, when my opponents have more time, theoretically it will be easier on grass at Wimbledon."

On that matter, Henman has a word or two of comfort for the Henman Hill-ites. "Some people are suddenly concerned that being at the French for too long is going to affect my grasscourt game. Well, for me the transition is easy." So, then, Wimbledon can wait. First, there is a French qualifier called Llodra and then, who knows what lies in store for the new-style Tim?