Tim Henman and Andre Agassi, leaving the centre stage to Andy Roddick and Sebastien Grosjean at the Stella Artois Championships yesterday, were taking stock at the start of their final week of preparation for Wimbledon.
Henman, the British No 1, a finalist here in three of the previous four years, fell victim to the passing shots of Grosjean in the semi-finals on Saturday, losing 6-3, 6-4, as the French sixth seed demonstrated the scope and variety of his game. Agassi, the world No 1, was subjected to the booming serve of his American compatriot, Andy Roddick, who hit 29 aces en route to a 6-3, 7-6 victory.
Agassi managed to return the ball as the 20-year-old Roddick equalled the fastest serve ever recorded, 149mph, delivered by Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, at altitude in Indian Wells, Californian, in 1998.
Agassi, 33, who came close to forcing a third set, had the consolation of knowing that he has never been better prepared for Wimbledon in terms of grass court matches. On his only previous visit to the Stella tournament, in 2000, he retired in the fourth round after taking a tumble.
Henman, who was able to string together four consecutive matches for the first time since have an operation on his right shoulder last November, worried his supporters by having treatment to the shoulder from the trainer during Saturday's match.
"It's just a little stiff," Henman said. "I think it had a lot to do with my opponent. It's just an accumulation of serving more aggressively and the balls being a bit heavier, but I don't anticipate it being a long-term problem."
Henman, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in four of the past five hears, appeared to have a dilemma similar to the one he experienced on the unusually slow surface at the All England Club last year, of not being sure whether to attack the net or stay back and rally. It was only towards the end of the match that he put pressure on Grosjean.
"I give Seb a lot of credit," Henman said. "He played some very good tennis and made my life a lot harder. But I missed some shots I probably shouldn't have, and it cost me. There's certainly plenty to work on going into Wimbledon."
Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, two former Wimbledon champions who served and volleyed their way to glory, revived memories yesterday by playing each other in a challenge match to mark the 25th anniversary of the Stella tournament. Becker won the one-set contest, 8-6.
Asked to assess Henman's Wimbledon prospects, Edberg said: "He was lacking matches until the last few weeks, but you can pick up your form very quickly at Wimbledon.
"As long as Tim's shoulder holds up, I think he could do quite well, but it is always difficult to go all the way through."
Becker said: "Tim is one of the few guys who really knows how to play on the grass, and he also knows how to cope with the pressure at Wimbledon. The fact that he reached the semi-finals at Queen's shows he is ready to battle. Surgery or not, after five sets you are sore."
Agassi, the 1992 champion, also admires how Henman has dealt with the home crowd's expectations year after year. "For Tim to get to the semis four times is a testament to his competitiveness and his fighting spirit," the Las Vegan said.
"You watch him step on the court, you watch his first few points, and you realise that this guy is the real deal. It's not an easy situation, but he sure makes it look a lot easier. I have a lot of respect for the way he goes about his business."
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