The "Battle of the Brits" which swept away the BBC's planned morning viewing on Friday proved riveting stuff and produced the right winner. But this third-round match in a faraway stadium, perhaps more than anything else, further underlined what disparate athletes Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski are.
Apart from the fact that they share the same birthday, the only other things they have in common are wives called Lucy and a place on the British Davis Cup team. Henman was at pains to dismiss what he termed "rubbish" written in the past about the pair's lack of empathy, but its existence was highlighted by the formal-ity of the handshake which marked Henman's four-set victory. That it was Henman who marched into the fourth round of the Australian Open bitterly disappointed Rusedski, but the Montreal-born left-hander could have no com- plaints, other than the fact that the line calls didn't go his way.
For this, his fifth win in seven contests with Rusedski – and the first in a best-of-five match at a Grand Slam event – Henman was honed to battle sharpness. The British No 1 has never played with more skill and confidence, as the statistics showed. To land 73 per cent of first serves on target is to be coveted by anyone. For Henman to attain that consistency on a hitherto notoriously unreliable delivery showed how much wisdom has been directed into his ear by Larry Stefanki, the Californian who has been coaching him for the last six months.
We had been promised a new Henman, and here he was; glittering with confidence and eye-catching in the way he controlled the match. The forehand, for so long classed as the other great Henman handicap, could not have been more solid. The urge to wallop the fuzz off the ball has been suppressed. These days Henman plays percentage tennis, leavened by his ability to produce shots of genius, most notably on the volley and – a new weapon, this – the lob.
He struck not a single ace. But then he double-faulted only once. The match total of a dozen unforced errors is a count the Henman of old could have amassed in the course of a set, or even a few games. The BBC's John Barrett was quite carried away: "It's just magical, Henman's form. We can all feel privileged to have witnessed it."
Stefanki put in his own 10 cents' worth of praise: "Tim listens and wants to improve. For a guy in the world's top 10 to accept that he needs to make a change is unusual."
Henman has also been smart enough to borrow from others. From Rusedski he has adopted the Mop Factor, Greg's habit of delaying proceedings by calling repeatedly for a towel to pass across his face. Wisely, he left it at that in the matter of Rusedski mannerisms, foregoing the banana munch, the shoelace fiddling or the dog-like walk with towel hanging from between the teeth.
Strangely, on what became a chilly evening, Rusedski opted to wear an ice pack round his neck at each changeover while keeping his knees warm with a towel. Tony Pickard, who once coached Rusedski before an acrimonious parting at the 1998 Wimbledon, found this strange, even by Greg's standards of procedure. "Maybe an ice pack at the beginning of the match was OK, but once the sun goes down in Melbourne it gets cold there."
Pickard was also bemused by Rusedski's decision to play the other gamesmanship card, the toilet break, after winning the third set. "It was a dim move to do that when you are in control," he said. "You have stamped your authority and you leave the proceedings to do nothing. But I don't think Greg can be upset about the result, the better player won. Think about it, this time last year Rusedski couldn't punch his way out of a paper bag. Now we are into a new year by three weeks and he has already won a tournament. He can say to himself, 'OK, today I wasn't good enough' but he should have walked away with lots of positives."
Henman's net-play drew praise from Pickard, who also coached one of the best-ever volleyers, Stefan Edberg. "Henman is the best volleyer on the tour at the moment, without a doubt. He played two brilliant sets to begin with and if he had converted those break points at the start of the third set it would have been over a lot quicker."
Pickard also warned about the inevitability of one bad day in the progress of every Grand Slam champion. "I used to say to Stefan, 'You will get a day when you struggle', and it will happen to Henman, too. If he can come through a bad day, then I think he can get to the final. It would be lovely for him to win a big one. Let's face it, he hasn't come close to doing that yet."
True enough, but the record for the new season going into this morning's match with Jonas Bjorkman was played eight, won eight, which has persuaded some that Henman is poised for greatness. "Tim could advance all the way to become the first British man to win a Grand Slam in 65 years," chirruped Annabel Croft on Eurosport. "Tim Can Win It," was a typical forecast in yesterday's tabloids.
Henman himself was understandably more cautious. Conceding that the victory over Rusedski was "the best performance in terms of quality I've given in a Grand Slam outside Wimbledon", he added: "But I've never been past the fourth round in this tournament. So for me to start looking at next Sunday is a million miles away. At this stage, ranking, reputation, seeding don't mean anything. You have to keep going out there, day in, day out."
Henman is spot on with that observation. After all, by beating Rusedski he had still not reached the halfway point in the tournament. Three matches won, four still to go. And Tim, more than anyone, will never forget he was supposed to win Wimbledon last summer, too. Let's hope this time it doesn't rain on his parade.Reuse content