Seventh hell for Henman as Enqvist takes title

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Tim Henman's abysmal run in finals continued last night with a 7-6, 6-4 defeat to Thomas Enqvist at theTennis Masters in Cincinnati.

Tim Henman's abysmal run in finals continued last night with a 7-6, 6-4 defeat to Thomas Enqvist at theTennis Masters in Cincinnati.

The British No 1 has now lost seven consecutive finals since January 1999 and the fact that this was by the far the most important ATP Tour title he has contested will only heighten his frustration.

"My inspiration now is Patrick Rafter," said Henman afterwards. "I think he lost six or seven finals in a row and he turned out all right."

As in most of the previous sixfinals, he played well but not well enough, and what was already becoming a worrying trend now threatens to be an unshakable habit. The match itself was a turgid affair, with a patchwork of winners and errors from both sides, but Enqvist's hard hit groundstrokes and pacy passing shots made the difference.

Henman was a notch below the form that saw him knock out both Pete Sampras and the Champions' Race leader, Gustavo Kuerten, earlier in the week. All the signs of improvement were there - greater speed around the court, more consistent serving; but errors, particularly on his usually reliable backhand slice, let him down at crucial moments.

The pair were neck and neck in the first set, although it was Henman who made the brighter start, forcing a break point in Enqvist's opening service game. However, he could not convert it, and the players remained inseparable until a tie-break, when a Henman double-fault effectively handed Enqvist the set.

With that in the bag, the Swede then set about picking at Henman's self-confidence, and the British No 1 obliged by playing a sloppy game to lose his serve at the start of the second set.

Quietly spoken and unmistakably Swedish, Enqvist plays solid and unspectacular tennis. Serving up to 130mph and hitting harder than almost anyone else on the ATP Tour, he makes very few mistakes, keeping a level of consistency that Henman can only aspire to.

From a set and a break down the writing was on the wall for Henman, and though he managed to save two more break points in the fourth game to keep himself alive, he failed to convert any of the four break-back points he had on the Enqvist serve.

It was a disappointing anticlimax to one of the best weeks of Henman's career, and one which he may well look back on as a significant breakthrough. He has often talked of improvements, but his results this week backed up the fighting talk.

His quarter-final win over Pete Sampras had been a long time coming, and showed a genuine improvement in both his play and his mental resilience. The fact that he resisted the temptation to rest on his laurels after finally crushing his nemesis and instead built on that with two more wins is a good omen for the forthcoming US Open, which starts on 28 August.

The Masters Series is the ATP Tour's new name for the nine élite events on the men's tour. Henman's record at these tournaments has been poor in the past and he will be relieved to have at last been within touching distance of one of the distinctive shield-shaped trophies.

For Enqvist, the win marks a remarkable improvement in fortune. He pulled out of the Masters Series event in Toronto last week with a foot injury and was very close to doing the same here. Instead he played a series of indifferent but competent matches which got him to the final but gave no hint of just how well he would play when he got there.

So in seven days he has gone from the physiotherapist's table to taking his 17th title and adding to his already impressive CV. What is more he will be one to watch in New York in three weeks' time. "I usually play good when I have a lot of matches so I'm really pleased," the Swede said.

"I think we are big, big favourites at the US Open, Tim and I, we're probably going to play in the final." These words will be music to Henman's ears as he heads to Indianapolis to play the next event in the American hard court schedule. He will be seeded seven there and will be among the favourites.

"It is frustrating but I need to be patient," he said. "I beat Pete this week for the first time, I beat the Champions Race leader [Kuerten] for the first time and I made a Masters Series final for the first time, so I can take a lot of confidence away." A lot of confidence and yet another runners' up trophy to add to his already burgeoning collection.

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