Tim Henman was at his majestic best against Andre Agassi on Wednesday evening, before his big let down in failing to serve the match out at 5-4 in the final set and waving goodbye to four match points in a tie-break, one with a double-fault, and Ed Pope, the sports editor of the Miami Herald, wanted to know if the man from Oxfordshire was regarded as Britain's finest male player since Fred Perry.
Some strengths and weaknesses were discussed, such as Henman's style and record in comparison to Bunny Austin, Greg Rusedski, Buster Mottram, John Lloyd, Mark Cox, Roger Taylor, Mike Sangster. But Ed's interest in Henman waned after the match ended with the world No 1 winning, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6, and advancing to the semi-finals of the Ericsson Open. Ed already knew what he needed to know, that Perry never hesitated in pulling the trigger.
The power, pace and demands of the game have intensified since Perry was in his pomp in the 1930s. As Henman said, when asked if he thought victory was his when he stretched to put his racket on a fierce Agassi passing shot on the first match point: "I think it's difficult perhaps for you to understand if you're not playing out there.
"It's happening pretty quickly. I still did well to get to the volley, but I couldn't quite control it."
What holds true today, as it did in Perry's time, is that champions know how to finish. Agassi, the best returner of serve since Jimmy Connors, is bound to put doubts in the minds of opponents, even when limping slightly in the closing stages of a draining contest, as he was here. Setting aside three of Henman's match points, lost against Agassi's serve, victory was in the Briton's hands when he served at 9-8 in the tie-break, and Agassi was elated at the sight of the ball hitting the net from the second delivery.
"You all of a sudden get a little life, because you feel like, again, you're dealing with the circumstances," the world No 1 said. "I'm thinking to myself: 'If he makes the first serve, make him play a volley, just find a way to get this ball in play. If he misses a first serve, don't poke this ball, take a good cut at it, stay aggressive, give yourself margin for error and execute.' When he misses a second you are a little relieved, but then you've got work to do real quickly."
Agassi's assessment of Henman's performance was a mixed review. "I thought he played really well," he said. "He fought hard and kept the match real competitive when I thought it could have got away from him - believe it or not - early in the second set, and the third, as well. He played real well on some big points when he was down, and then didn't quite play as well when he had the big points to put the match away.
"It's tough. It's difficult to do both. Being down, finding a way to get back into it, then finding your opportunity and converting. It would be a heck of a match if he did that.
"I think sometimes he rushes his decision-making out there. When he was up and on the verge of winning, I felt he maybe forced things a little too much. He's good enough really to wait for his opportunity. He didn't quite play his best at the last stages, when he had the opportunity to win. But that's a lot to ask, because he certainly played well to get himself into that position.
"There's a lot of pressure out there when you get to that stage of the match. He's thinking to himself: 'I need to get in. I want to get in. I want to put pressure on him.' I'm thinking to myself: 'I want to keep him back.' "
Agassi has played better, and he was encouraged by winning a match that ought to have belonged to his opponent. "Getting through these matches is good from a psychological and confidence standpoint," he said. "Teaching yourself to just keep executing your shots and to keep hitting and not worry if things don't quite go as well as you planned."
Men's singles quarter-finals
A Agassi (US) bt T Henman (GB) 7-5 1-6 7-6; G Kuerten (Br) bt W Ferreira (SA) 6-3 6-1
Women's singles, quarter-finals
M Seles (US) bt A Frazier (US) 6-0 6-3; M Hingis (Swit) bt A Coetzer (SA) 6-3 6-1.
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