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On a mild October Wednesday, in a half-empty stadium in Basel, Switzerland, a first round tennis match was played which has huge significance for the British game. Andy Murray, 18, playing only his ninth senior tennis event, beat erstwhile British number one Tim Henman, 6-2, 5-7, 7-6. The match had almost every nuance - Scotland v England, newcomer v veteran, baseliner v attacking volleyer, practice partners facing each other for the first time. In the end, the tennis was something of an afterthought.
Murray has been touted as Henman’s successor ever since he won the US Open junior event in 2004. But his ascent up the rankings has been quicker than many expected. Ranked outside the top 400 at the start of the year, Murray is now 70th in the world and could finish the year even higher. But with all the excitement surrounding Murray’s rapid climb, it should also be noted that Tim Henman has been on a steady 12-month decline.
Although twice a winner of the Swiss Open (in 1998 and 2001), Henman is now 31, ranked outside the top 20 and without a tournament victory to his name in nearly two years. After an excellent 2004, this year has been one of injury and dispiriting losses. And here was another.
Henman has always been capable of playing horrible tennis, and the first set was no exception. Spraying forehands all over the court, he gifted Murray a 4-0 lead. Murray, for his part, showed some fine strokeplay, but was never stretched.
In the second set. Murray was again the dominant player, but it was a more even affair as Henman started to find some rhythm on his serve and his range on his groundstrokes. Murray started to overplay the dropshot, but was still comfortable in the longer rallies. Then, at 4-4, Murray broke Henman and sat down to contemplate serving for the match. Whatever he thought about at the change of ends, it can’t have been his first serve. Missing every first delivery, Henman broke the Murray serve, and the momentum had shifted.
Henman took every chance going, taking the set with a break with Murray clearly rattled at his missed opportunity to wrap up the match. The crowd began to get more into the contest, having initially clapped Henman almost out of sympathy.
The third set was again tight. Murray looked tired, holding his legs and puffing hard, but held on to his serve through sustained pressure. And so to the tie break. It was a snapshot of the match, with Henman gifting Murray a start, clawing back a little, and then making another error, this time on the backhand. Murray won on his second match point, with a looping forehand volley.
Henman looked impassive, as he always does in defeat. Murray did none of the fistpumping that has characterised his other big wins, perhaps out of respect for Henman, but as he sat down, he started to shake. He knew what it meant, and so did Henman. In the overall scheme of things, perhaps nothing. But one day Murray will be British number one. The question is, will Henman relinquish that status through retirement, or will Murray overtake him?