Wimbledon '97: Krajicek's confidence grows on grass

Guy Hodgson looks at the task ahead for Britons Henman and Rusedski
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The Independent Online
When Richard Krajicek needed inspiration last year he watched a video of Braveheart. He saw enough hostile Englishmen then and he will be confronted by many more today when he meets Tim Henman and a courtful of supporters.

The Wimbledon champion has never played the British No1 before and just about the last place he would choose to confront him is on the lawns of the All England Club. As Paul Haarhuis will testify, beating the man is one thing, overcoming a the waves of Henmania is another. On People's Sunday the mood was raw, rampant jingoism.

Krajicek, the fourth seed, described the prospect as "very interesting" after he had defeated David Rikl in the previous round but his compatriot Haarhuis might tell him otherwise. The Dutchman had a face like thunder as he left the Hen-fest on Centre Court and he was clearly unhappy. Had the crowd helped Henman? "That's too difficult," he replied, his diplomacy not entirely concealing his anger.

If the match was being played in Paris or New York, Krajicek would be a strong favourite as Henman is short of match practice since the operation on his elbow in March. At a wet Wimbledon, where he had less form to lose in the rain delays than most, the equation becomes more complicated.

"I'm serving very big," Krajicek said, "but I'd like to be more consistent with my returns. I'm getting there." Compared with his form this time 12 months ago, he added: "Last year I wasn't very happy with myself... I haven't had a bad day mentally here."

That mental equilibrium has been achieved by Krajicek's coming to terms with the surface. Monica Seles says that you have the battle half won if you accept the grass, warts and all, and the Dutchman has got better at Wimbledon as he has learned to forget the occasional bad bounce. On Sunday he even welcomed that the turf was beginning to wear.

Krajicek has a serve that encourages comparisons with a blacksmith's blow on the anvil but that will not necessarily discourage Henman, who is finding force easier to face on the unpredictable surface than guile."It's funny the way the court is playing," Henman said. "It's sometimes easier to return the first serve. The second comes through the air quickly and as soon as it hits the court it can be bouncing in all directions; [then] it comes through slowly, which I don't find particularly easy.

"From a statistical point of view he's the favourite. He's the defending champion and he's ranked higher than me but that's not the way I'll approach it. I'll just concentrate on my own game, firmly believing I can come out with a win."

Greg Rusedski, Henman's friend and rival, feels today's result lies with Krajicek. "When Richard played Michael Stich and Pete Sampras last year they were probably two of the best matches I've seen on grass. For those two weeks I don't think anyone could have beaten him. If he brings that form it's going to be awfully tough for Tim. But he hasn't shown it yet."

Rusedski has reason to feel more confident about his own prospects, because his American opponent today, Richey Reneberg, is ranked 46 places below him. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage a scenario that could be more favourable for the British No 2 in the second week of Wimbledon. Not only is he playing well - one defeat in 13 matches - but the draw has opened up so that he will not have to meet a seed until the semi-finals.

"My next match is not easy," Rusedski said, "because Richey returns so well. I can't really look to the semi, because if you're looking that far ahead you might not be there."