Sunday stroll suits revived Henman
Monday 29 May 2006
This has always been a city that combines respect for history with a belief in innovation - it is hard to imagine another major capital erecting a modern glass pyramid outside one of its most historic buildings - and it was no surprise when the French Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to start on a Sunday.
Play duly began here yesterday, though those turning up at Roland Garros with ground tickets who had not checked exactly what they were buying might have been disappointed. Only 12 matches were scheduled, four on each of the three main show courts. There was the opportunity to catch some of the bigger names on the outside courts, but only if you enjoyed watching practice sessions.
The Sunday change was made to maximise revenue - what price the Grand Slam tournaments soon going the whole hog and starting on a Saturday? - and is not universally popular with the players. Maria Sharapova was particularly upset at having to play. The 2004 Wimbledon champion has not competed for eight weeks because of an injury to her right ankle and it was touch and go whether she played here. She requested a late start last week and asked again after aggravating the injury on Friday and having another scan.
The response? "They told me I was playing fourth on Sunday," Sharapova said. "It doesn't make you feel great when you know that the French federation are only interested in selling tickets and making money rather than in their players." Sharapova was clearly struggling with her movement as she was forced to save three match points before beating Mashona Washington, the world No 89, 6-2, 5-7, 7-5. At 5-2 down in the final set Sharapova said she was "calling British Airways", with a view to heading across the Channel to prepare for the grass-court season.
The major complaint of other players was that they will now have to wait three days rather than two before they play next. That hardly sounds like a reason to storm the Bastille - Tim Henman, who beat Kenneth Carlsen comfortably in four sets, welcomed the extra rest day - but the world's best player was still less than happy. Roger Federer, who had a scratchy victory over an Argentinian qualifier, had also asked in vain not to play on the first day.
"That's Grand Slams," Federer said. "They don't listen to us as much as the other tournaments. You feel as though the tournament hasn't started and right away you're challenged: full stadium, pressure. Then you have to wait. I think if you pass the first two rounds it's obviously OK because you get into a rhythm."
Amélie Mauresmo, the women's No 1, was reluctant to criticise her home tournament, but agreed it was "a little bit strange" to start on a Sunday. "We weren't really in favour, but now it's here we adapt," she said after beating Meghann Shaughnessy. Henman has been practising here since last Tuesday and his 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory proved that both his game and his body are in good shape. Troubled for 18 months by a back problem, he changed his training regime over the winter and believes he is now well equipped to improve his world ranking, which at No 70 is at its lowest for 10 years.
The Briton's volleys were as beautifully timed as ever, his groundstrokes reliable and his drop shots delightfully disguised, but what impressed most was his speed and agility. The 31-year-old successfully chased down several shots which Carlsen clearly thought were winners. Henman, who plays the winner of today's match between Dmitry Tursunov and Jiri Novak, proved by reaching the semi-finals here two years ago that he can live with the best on clay, though Carlsen hardly fits into that category.
The 33-year-old Dane, ranked No 109, has won just two of his 13 matches here since his debut 13 years ago. Carlsen made too many mistakes on important points and was struggling from the moment he was broken in his first service game.
Henman should have won more easily, but netted a good chance to break for 5-4 in the third set, which Carlsen went on to win by breaking serve in the 10th game. "I'm pleased to win, pleased with the way I'm playing and most pleased with how I feel physically," Henman said. "I know that I can play well on this surface. I'm feeling so fit and good about my game. I just know that it's going to pay off at some stage."
Federer made a host of errors against Diego Hartfield, who had never played on the ATP tour before, let alone a Grand Slam tournament. The 25-year-old Argentinian, who owes his No 156 ranking to results on the Challenger circuit, won the first three games, but eventually lost 7-5, 7-6, 6-2.
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