Henman leaves the big stage with defeat but few regrets

Former British No 1 bows out after a predictable beating from a new breed of player

Paul Newman
Sunday 02 September 2007 00:00

There were no tears, no regrets and no second thoughts. If there was to be a fitting end to Tim Henman's Grand Slam career here at the US Open it could hardly have been more appropriate than his four-set defeat by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga under the floodlights of Louis Armstrong Stadium on Friday evening.

Night matches at Flushing Meadows, with the noisy crowd and sultry conditions, have a flavour of their own. Wimbledon it is not, but Henman knows he will take his final bow at his spiritual home against Croatia in the Davis Cup later this month, and the New York audience generated what the former British No 1 called "a fantastic atmosphere" for his farewell tournament appearance.

Even more tellingly, Tsonga provided a perfect illustration of why Henman feels the time is right to retire. While a bad back has played a key part in his decision, other factors have meant the former world No 4 has been fighting a losingbattle for some years now.

Modern-day balls and court surfaces, which give baseliners time to wind up their pounding groundstrokes, do no favours to serve-and-volley specialists, while a new generation of supermen – built like shot-putters, as tall as basketball players and with the speed of 100m runners – have changed the dynamics of the game.

Tsonga, 6ft 2in and over 14 stones, is typical of the new breed and the 22-year-old Frenchman would be ranked higher thanNo 74 in the world without the injuries that have interrupted his career. He won 7-6 2-6 7-5 6-4.

"Tsonga's a classic modern-day player," Henman said. "I think that's where it's become harder and harder for me to compete. You look at the way he serves, the way he hits his forehand, his athleticism. It's phenomenal these days – and there are a lot of other guys like that around."

Of his own frame, Henman said he would have liked to have been "three or four inches taller and 20 or 30 pounds heavier". He believes there is still a place for serve-and-volley players, but "with the nature of the conditions and the balls, it's definitelybecoming harder and harder. Less and less people are being taught it and encouraged to play it at a young age. You've got an event here with 128 male players and very few of them are serving and volleying. It's sad, because I think everybody knows that watching contrasts of styles is what makes a good spectacle."

The first set might have gone Henman's way, but Tsonga broke back after dropping his serve to trail 4-5 and won the tie-break comfortably. Henman's chip-and-charge tactics flummoxed the Frenchman in the second set, but the Briton was eventually outhit and outrun. A break in the fifth game of the fourth set proved decisive, and Tsonga took the match with an ace.

Henman will look back with some satisfaction, having beatenthe seeded Dmitry Tursunov in the first round. He said he felt comfortable with his decision to retire and was content that he had always given 100 per cent.

"It's my last tournament, but I feel like the Davis Cup is a big event," he said. "I can't honestlysay I've finished my career because although I'm going to go back and have a few days off, I'm going to be in the gym, practising, getting back on grassand preparing."

He said he expected "a few tears" at Wimbledon in three weeks' time. "That's when I'll be closing a chapter that's dominated such a big part of my life. I feel like I've been a professionalfor 26 years, because I made one career decision when I was probably five or six. I knew I wantedto be a professional tennisplayer. I didn't know whether that was realistic or what lay ahead, but it has been such a big part of my life. I'm sure it's going to be much more emotional than it is probably right now."

Tsonga goes on to play Rafael Nadal, whose opponent, Janko Tipsarevic, retired with a rib injury. On a day when two former champions, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, lost to Agustin Calleri and Stanislas Wawrinka respectively, Britain's lone competitor in the men's doubles also went out, Jamie Murray and Eric Butorac losing to Amer Delic and Justin Gimelstob.

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