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May 02, 2003

Henman upbeat but evidence suggests otherwise
By Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent

HE REMAINS unshakeably upbeat, although the burdens are piling up against that wretched shoulder of his. Tim Henman left Munich yesterday absolutely sure that his game was coming around, having lost the last eight games against a player who had lost his previous eight tour matches before the BMW Open. Something is not right.

While Greg Rusedski headed to Rome yesterday to persuade the organisers of the Telecom Italia Masters to grant him a wild card into the qualifying event, Henman can console himself that his ranking has not slipped so far as to deny him a place in the main draw of one of tennis’s main attractions. What is worrying is that he cannot win a couple of matches in succession at what is regarded as a “lesser” event.

The No 7 seed lost 6-4, 6-0 in the second round to Stefan Koubek, an unkempt, unorthodox Austrian left-hander who won the championship in Doha in the first week of the year and then nosedived into a dreadful slump. He defeated Bjorn Phau, a German wild card, in the first round but found Henman a much easier catch yesterday as the British No 1 simply came apart at the seams.

“Things will take time, but I’m still hitting the ball well,” Henman said, although the evidence — especially in the latter stages, when Koubek was rampant — hardly bore that out. “With my game and my ability, by doing the right things I have no doubt that things will come right.”

But when? The longer this goes on — and Henman has won two out of his seven matches in 2003 — the more perilous the journey becomes. The next two tournaments on the rota are Tennis Masters Series events in Rome and Hamburg, where, it has been suggested, victories are harder to come by than at grand-slam events because the fields are stronger from the first round and everything is condensed into one week rather than two.

Henman has not strung three singles victories together since last year’s Wimbledon and, according to Koubek, whatever he has done with his serve in the meantime has rendered it less of a threat. “The serve is not what it was,” the Austrian confirmed. “It used to be much better. He would not tell me what problems he may still have with his shoulder, but he always has ice on it in the locker-room, so that says something.”

The last time they met, on the clay of Estoril two years ago, Henman had just decided to part company with David Felgate, his coach, and was starting to work the game out for himself. That year, he reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon for a third time, losing to Goran Ivanisevic. That seems a long time ago.

Yesterday, Henman started scratchily, picking up only two points in the first three games and although he managed to break back in the ninth game, he frittered away his hopes of revival in the next game and did not win another one. He speaks, rightly, about the importance of building momentum, but deep down he knows that only on Wimbledon’s grass — or perhaps sooner, if he gets a run at the Stella Artois Championships at Queen’s Club — will that happen. He is too fragile on clay.

The grass season is not far away and Henman and Rusedski have confirmed their places in the Stella field, along with Lleyton Hewitt, the champion, Andy Roddick and James Blake, of the United States; and Rafael Nadal, of Spain, and Richard Gasquet, of France, the sport’s leading teenaged prospects.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,5205-666182,00.html
 
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