- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club welcomes you to Timbledon, where a nation is shamelessly focused on its favorite son.
As an entire country seemingly held its breath, England's Tim Henman staggered to a five-set victory over virtual unknown Michel Kratochvil 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 yesterday, advancing to the quarterfinals in his bid to become the first Brit to win the men's singles at Wimbledon since 1936 (Fred Perry).
"I'm sure it wasn't pretty to watch, and I know it didn't feel particularly good to play," the 27-year-old Henman said after surviving a match defined by unforced errors, blown opportunities and uninspiring play. "But if I keep winning, it doesn't really matter how I play, does it?"
Not to the masses who line up before dawn for a chance to watch their hero from Henman Hill. The success-starved locals gladly would trade a fortnight of otherwise forgettable men's tennis for a British champion. Canadian transplant Greg Rusedski might be an acceptable second choice, but there's only one player affectionately known on the grounds as "Our Tim."
Fact is, optimism has rarely run so high on this side of the Atlantic. With 14 of the top 16 seeds in the men's draw exiting last week, only top-seeded Aussie Lleyton Hewitt looms as a major barrier to a Henman breakthrough. With feared Yanks like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick bounced from the bracket, the locals are expecting even more than a fourth semifinal appearance from the fourth-seeded Henman.
As one of London's infamous tabloids proclaimed in a headline over the weekend: "No pressure, Timbo, but choke now, and we'll never forgive you."
Such was the gut-twisting partisan backdrop for Henman's fourth-round matchup with Kratochvil, a 23-year-old Swiss baseliner with a surprisingly strong return game but virtually no serve.
Things progressed predictably for the first 90 minutes of the match on Court 1. The pair split the first two sets, and Henman took a 4-1 lead in the third before the rain showed up and forced a lengthy suspension. The delay was a disaster for Henman. He spent the nearly two-hour delay sitting and stewing in the stress of the situation before emerging from the locker room with a queasy stomach and a gimpy game.
The serve-and-volley specialist dropped five straight games after the break, falling 6-4 in the third while those in attendance gasped in horror.
"I don't know whether I've eaten something bad or what was wrong, but I just felt heavy, listless out there," said Henman, who called for the trainer after the third set and was given smelling salts. "I'm not quite sure why he did that. I guess he was trying to kick-start me into action, but I don't recommend them."
Considering the result, the rest of the nation might not share that opinion. Henman rallied after the archaic treatment to take the fourth set 6-3. And after yielding an opening break in the fifth and falling behind 0-2, Henman finished the match on a six-game run aided by a slew of unforced errors and double-faults from Kratochvil. For the match, Kratochvil finished with a staggering 59 unforced errors and 17 double-faults against only five aces, ghastly figures that made Henman's pedestrian performance seem almost competent.
"My serve has never been one of my major weapons," said Kratochvil, who is apparently a connoisseur of understatement. "I had him just where I wanted. I just didn't, you know, I just didn't close the match."
There's little doubt that finishing a match by handing your opponent six straight games might qualify as a closing issue. But Kratochvil's meltdown didn't stop the locals from lavishing praise on Henman, who meets Brazilian Andre Sa in one of tomorrow's quarterfinals.
Such was the tenor of the entire post-match interview, which was little more than a love-in, as a legion of British reporters cozied up to Henman in a fashion that would get you arrested in some U.S. states.
But that's what the men's draw has been reduced to this year. With most of the game's biggest names out of action, Henmania rules at Wimbledon. And irrespective of whether he wins the title or plays relatively horrid tennis, Henman's quest is certain to be the championship's overwhelming storyline.
"The expectations are mammoth, but that's OK," Henman said. "Considering all the attention and the way I felt and played today, it's really an amazing feeling to be through to the quarters."

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