Wimbledon 98: Henman proves Rafter's master

Home challenge: Britain's favourite son surges to the quarter- finals while hope runs dry in the women's competition
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The Independent Online
THE CENTRE Court crowd was able to afford a chuckle at the gathering grey clouds yesterday evening, secure in the knowledge that Tim Henman was not only the first man through to the quarter-finals, but had accomplished the feat for a third consecutive year. Moreover the 23-year-old from Oxford will be confident that he can improve on past defeats by the American Todd Martin, in 1966, and Germany's Michael Stich a year ago.

Yesterday, playing with an assuredness which has tended to desert him at other times this season, Henman defeated the Australian Pat Rafter, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2. Rafter, it will be remembered won the United States Open title last September, defeating Britain's Greg Rusedski in the final.

Not only does Rafter have a fairly similar serve and volley style to Henman's, but he was seeded six places above him for this tournament at No 6. If anything, Rafter would be regarded as the more athletic of the two, and although he had to take an injury time out for treatment to his back early in the fourth set, the 26-year-old Queenslander performed with gusto for the majority of the contest.

The match began in extraordinary circumstances in that blue skies and a few fluffy white clouds were overhead. Henman responded to the conditions by serving masterfully throughout the opening set, his toss untroubled by a tricky breeze.

He broke Rafter for 5-3 with a glorious service return, delivering a backhand pass down the line that left Rafter gasping. Although the Briton was taken to deuce when serving for the set - conceding three of only six points he allowed off his deliveries - he had taken the lead after only 28 minutes.

Ominous grey clouds returned for the second set, but Henman continued to dominate the early games, breaking for 3-2 with a neat angled forehand half-volley. Serving for the set proved more difficult on this occasion, however, and there were signs that Henman's serve was beginning to waver. He double-faulted twice in being broken back for 5-5, a success which gave Rafter heart to level the match.

When it came to the tie-break Henman found himself 5-2 down, Rafter beating him with a backhand pass and a backhand volley. Although Henman took the next point, when Rafter directed a half- volley over the baseline, the Australian would not be denied, converting his first set point, passing Henman with a backhand service return across the court for 7-3.

British fears of an anticlimax were calmed when Henman made fairly comfortable work of the third set once he had saved to break points after cracking Rafter for 2-0. Rafter saved one set point when serving at 5-3, but was unable to hold Henman back in the next game, which was settled by an ace.

Rafter handicapped himself by double-faulting to lose the opening game of the fourth set, evidently beginning to feel the twinges that forced him to call for the trainer, who almost tied the Australian into a knot in an endeavour to ease the condition.

Henman did his opponent a favour by double-faulting to lose the next game. The Briton also showed characteristic sportsmanship in conceding the final point of the next game after Rafter's serve had been called out by the linesman. The Briton simply walked to his chair, acknowledging that the game was over. Henman was confident enough in his own game to break for 3-2, at which point he took a break to visit the bathroom. He returned to save a break point with an ace off a second serve.

Rafter's resistance began to evaporate after that, and he netted a backhand volley from a service return to go 2-5 down. Having had time to calm himself during the changeover, Henman returned to the court to advance to the last eight, converting the match point by forcing Rafter to miss with a low forehand volley across the court.

One or two unaccustomed names are vying to join Henman in the quarter-finals. One of them will be either Francisco Clavet of Spain, a 29-year-old ranked No 36, or the Italian Davide Sanguinetti, ranked No 65, who meet in the fourth round.

Pete Sampras defeated Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, 6-3, 7-6, 7-6, to find his path to the quarter-finals blocked by a qualifier. Sebastien Grosjean, a 20-year-old from Marseilles, ranked No 117 in the world, had seen off Felix Mantilla, the Spanish No 16 seed, 6-0, 7-6, 6-2.

"He's a qualifier who has won three matches, so at this point he's confident," Sampras said. "I practised with him one time, in Paris. Anyone that's still around in the second week is playing well, and I'm sure he'll be hungry to beat me. But I feel like I'm playing well."

Sampras's match against Enqvist took one hour and 53 minutes spread over three days. They started warming up to play on Friday but did not make it to the court before rain curtailed play. Sampras led on Saturday, 6- 3, 5-5, 15-0. There was no play on Sunday, and when play resumed yesterday, Sampras secured the second set in a tie-break, 7-4.

The score stood at 4-4 in the third set when rain once again sent the players back to the locker-rooms for two and a half hours. Both players had plenty of time to rue missed chances. Sampras had two break points in the third game and another in the fifth. Enqvist had three opportunities in the sixth game.

Only two minutes after play resumed, Enqvist having held his serve to love to lead 5-4, the line judges were changed, much to the crowd's amusement. Events took a serious turn for Sampras in the 12th game, when he had to save three set points before forcing the tie-break, which he won, 7-4, with a backhand volley on his second match point.

"It was a long, long weekend," Sampras said. "I never had a match last three days. It's an emotional roller-coaster. It was kind of weird yesterday, having a day off when it was a nice day, sitting on the match for a day, but they don't play on middle Sunday.

"The rain delays are tough for everybody. The locker-room is packed with players, and also with the over-35s and over-45s. There is a room downstairs where I spend most of my time. You just shoot the you know what and just hang out. You watch golf on television, or whatever."

When Sampras said he did not play cards or other games, he was told by a reporter that Bjorn Borg used to play games in the locker-room, "Video games and stuff."

The champion reflected for a second. "That must have worked," he said.

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