Tim flies towards destiny

Wimbledon 2003: British hero charges into the second week - and the dream is still alive
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The Independent Online

Having been kept waiting until early evening to get on Centre Court for his third-round match with the Swedish qualifier, Robin Soderling, Tim Henman reacted as if he was overdue for an urgent dinner date, turning his match into a rout, 6-3 6-1 6-4 in one hour 34 minutes.

So having been offered a gift horse for the third straight match, someone ranked outside the world's leading 150, the 10th-seeddid not spurn it. Poor Soderling, an 18-year-old who has been talked up by such as Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg as the future of tennis in their country, showed that he has much to learn, not only about the art of grass-court tennis but also how to handle big occasions.

"Execute" is a tennis term for performing well, but in this case the gibbet and noose could almost be spotted standing in the corner of this grand old arena. Having been painfully reminded by pundits and punters that he needed to become more aggressive if he was to do well this year, Henman silenced all of them with a glorious exhibition of the serve-volley art, charging the net and putting away his shots with that crisp, satisfying sound of a point professionally acquired.

Soderling's double-fault on the opening point of his first service game was a harbinger. Though the Swede struck some clean winners from behind the baseline, Henman rapidly realised there was much to be gained by drawing the tall Swede forward with drops, dinks and angles.

Though he missed break points in that first service game of Soderling's, Henman then broke for a 3-1 lead. But just as he seemed to be galloping clear and on the brink of going 5-1 up, he dropped his own serve to offer Soderling a reprieve. It was a brief one. Henman broke right back and was never again even vaguely threatened.

The first set was over in 34 minutes and the second lasted 21, with Henman dropping one point in three service games, hammering down ace after ace, 12 in all, and looking so comfortable he could have been giving a lesson, which in some respects he was.

Henman did not commit his first double-fault until the start of the third set. As if in penitence, he followed with three crushing service games to love and now the lad from Tibro was abject, reduced to uttering a four-letter word which brought him a warning as Henman broke him to love. Perhaps incensed by the reprimand, Soderling unleashed a bunch of astonishing winners to take Henman's serve to love, but Henman closed it out at once, celebrating with the crowd, some of whom had queued and camped out for three days for this one.

"At this stage I couldn't be happier than the way I played in the last two matches," said Henman. "The biggest improvement has been in my serve. I have served consistently and aggressively and if I am going to progress further in this tournament that's got to continue." Tomorrow Henman gets another Centre Court date for his match with last year's surprise finalist, David Nalbandian, who came through a four hour 23 minute marathon against the Slovak, Karol Kucera, 6-4 5-7 6-7 6-4 6-2, and recovered from a 2-0 deficit in the fifth set.

Earlier, there was a victory for the old 'uns on Centre Court when the 33-year-old Andre Agassi, the veteran man in the tournament, defeated Younes El Aynaoui, aged 31, 5-7 6-4 7-6 7-6 to move into the last 16. The two senior citizens of the men's singles survivors toiled just under three and a quarter hours in the hot sunshine before the Moroccan wilted as the indefatigable Agassi raised the pace, and the stakes, in the second tiebreak of the match.

It was once more an incredible showing from the world No 1 and second seed, especially since he was some way below his best. Perhaps he was thinking about last January's Australian Open, when El Aynaoui played a 21-19 fifth set in a five-hour quarter-final with Andy Roddick, and decided he might need to pace himself.

Tomorrow Agassi will face the unseeded Australian, Mark Philippoussis, who beat the Czech, Radek Stepanek in four sets. Agassi has lost only once to Philippoussis in seven meetings and beat him in three sets here in 2000.

The 1992 champion, attempting to establish a record here by winning a second title 11 years after his first, will be happy to tuck this victory away as an occasion which could have gone horribly wrong. El Aynaoui served very well, sometimes brilliantly, and Agassi was forced to do something he rarely opts for, volley. "I don't know what got into me there," he grinned. "I probably won't do that again until about 2010."

However, there was one horrible moment, late in the fourth set, when it seemed certain Agassi's stamina would be tested to the limit. Trailing 5-6, Agassi fell love-40 on a ball which El Aynaoui bent around the net post and which failed to bounce. Three set points to the Moroccan. Agassi saved them all, one with an ace, his 12th of the match.

So, instead, Agassi was offered the chance to win another tiebreak, and with it a place in the fourth round. After El Aynaoui had opened the tiebreak with his 19th ace the momentum shifted and when the tiring Moroccan dumped a forehand into the net, he smashed his racket on the ground. The error left Agassi needing to win two serves for the match and he did it conclusively with a service winner and then a forehand into the vast area of court the exhausted Moroccan had left him.