Having badly mis-hit a forehand that dribbled into the net, Britain's Tim Henman found himself staring at three match points against a virtual unknown in his opening match of Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic last night as fans tried desperately to rally his spirits.
"C'mon, Tim!" "C'mon, Henman!" they shouted. Then, a lone voice chimed: "Tally ho!"
But their efforts were in vain, as Henman limped off the court moments later, beaten soundly by South Africa's Wesley Moodie, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5.
Henman's stunning loss to the world's 113th-ranked player signals that he has a long way to go before rebounding from his second-round defeat at Wimbledon this year -- his worst showing at the grass-court classic in a decade. It also represents a loss for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, depriving the tournament of one of its biggest names, its third seed and 2003 titlist. On Monday, tournament officials announced the last-minute withdrawal of Andre Agassi, who had served as the Legg Mason's marquee attraction for the past 15 years but bowed out this year in order to rest for the U.S. Open.
With Agassi and Henman out, top-seeded Andy Roddick should have relatively clear sailing into Sunday's final. He looked to be in fine form yesterday in his opener against Giovanni Lapentti of Ecuador, whom he dispatched, 6-3, 6-4, earlier in the evening before an enthusiastic crowd at Washington's William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.
Roddick, playing in his second tournament since falling to Roger Federer in the final of Wimbledon for a second consecutive year, fired eight aces and won 86 percent of the points on his first serve to defeat Lapentti, the world's 130th-ranked player, in 1 hour 7 minutes.
Afterward, he proclaimed himself "cautiously optimistic" about his chances of claiming a second title at the hard-court classic, which he won in 2001, and eager for the next test, which will come tomorrow -- most likely 14th-seeded Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina.
"I felt good out there -- all around," said Roddick, 22. "I had no stupid errors and served well, so I was pleased with how I played."
Henman could hardly say the same after another in a series of setbacks. Legg Mason marked his first tournament since the bitter defeat at Wimbledon more than a month ago. He has yet to reach a semifinal this year. And at 30, he is running out of chances to win the title he covets most. Meantime, younger pros are flooding onto the pro tour with huskier physiques, bigger strokes and more powerful serves, raising the question of whether there's a place at the top level of tennis for a classic serve-and-volleyer with a slight build such as Henman.
After losing the first set in a tie-breaker, Henman fought back to pull even at 5 games each in the second set. Moodie held serve, leaving Henman to serve at 5-6 in hopes of forcing another tie-breaker. But he double-faulted on the first point and never recovered.
Henman said the loss was particularly disappointing given the rigorous 21/2 weeks of training he had put in before coming to Washington to launch into preparations for the U.S. Open. "I feel that after a difficult first six months of the year, I really started to put in some good work back into my game," he said. "It didn't pay off this week, but I'm sure it will down the road."
Two other seeds fell yesterday. Nicolas Kiefer of Germany (sixth seed) withdrew with a lingering viral illness, and seventh seed Max Mirnyi of Belarus fell to 14th-seeded Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Roddick, meantime, used his opener against Lapentti to work on his net game -- the least sharp arrow in his quiver and one he is focusing on improving for the U.S. Open.
"I'm still learning," Roddick said of his net game. "I definitely feel like it's improving. . . . It's all about your mind-set. The biggest part of the game is between your ears. When things start going wrong I can't get down on myself out there. I just have to keep concentrating on hitting the next shot."
Though Lapentti is hardly the caliber player Roddick is likely to meet in the late stages of a slam, the Ecuadorian proved a worthy foil, mixing up the pace against Roddick, who loves nothing more than blasting forehands in a rhythmic groove, and knocking the American on his heels more than once with serves that topped 140 mph.
"I wasn't expecting him to serve that big," Roddick conceded, "and he served a very high percentage."
The lanky Lapentti, whose older brother Nicolas is both higher ranked (80th) and better known on the circuit, has a few things in common with Roddick: A big serve, topspin-heavy forehand and affinity for the baseline. But mindful that he wasn't likely to overpower Roddick with any of those weapons, Lapentti smartly varied his pace, mixing in clever drop shots and well-placed lobs to flummox his opponent.
Still, he was never able to break Roddick's serve, which only got better as the match progressed. And that spelled his doom.