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BUD COLLINS

Wind in the sails of Brits

Henman buoys hopes with five-set thriller

LONDON -- Was this slim man in short pants the reincarnation of Sir Francis Drake, the combative 16th-century limey who sank the Spanish Armada?

Well, no. It was only Tim Henman, who has been sinking deeper and deeper himself lately, nearing the end of a career that once gleamed as he distinguished himself as the personification of British tennis. That's all. Just Tim against the world. Never won Wimbledon, of course. No Englishman has since Fred Perry in 1936. But he's made the semifinals and quarters four times apiece, and often stirred the nation at Wimbledon time with dramatic victories and defeats.

For five years, he inhabited the planetary top 10, but listing and leaking, practically dismasted, and descended to No. 78, Henman hardly seemed able or likely to rouse the homeland one more time. Especially with a dangerous Spaniard in the house firing broadsides at him.

Nevertheless, like Drake himself, Henman, ever the daring attacker, responded vibrantly to the cheers and pleas of the home multitudes. Captivatingly, he captured the second day of the 121st Wimbledon. He did it the old-fashioned way, as a clever serve-and-volleyer.

Also, in Drake-speak: "I stuck to my guns. It might have been sweet [to finish it earlier], but perhaps this scenario is even better. It was fantastic for me."

It took a long time. A three-act melodrama in five sets and 4 hours 10 minutes, spanning two days, had the British Isles bouncing until Carlos Moya, well-armored in muscles, finally went to the bottom of Centre Court, 6-3, 1-6, 5-7, 6-2, 13-11.

Act I seemed routine enough. Rain chased the two from the battlefield for 90 minutes in the second set. On once again for Act II, they zigged and zagged into the fifth set as the largely patriotic full house of 13,800 whooped and hollered. Echoing them were the thousands on a rise at the end of the grounds known as Henman Hill, concentrating on a gigantic TV screen. Who knows how many screen-absorbed homebodies were also jiggling?

Moya, the French Open champ of 1998 and a quarterfinalist in Paris recently, had a 5-4 lifetime edge on Henman, but they'd never clashed on grass. It looked like curtains for the homeboy as he fell behind two break points (2-4, 15-40) in the fifth. Somehow he found a life raft, and kept charging to almost push Moya overboard in the 10th game. Four match points. He held his weapon against the Spaniard's throat, but it was Moya's turn to escape to 5-5. They had been fighting each other and darkness, and the latter won at 9:16 p.m.

"Carlos and I agreed that was enough at 5-5," said Henman. "Tomorrow would be soon enough to finish. I slept well. Really. Didn't wake up until the alarm went off at 8:45. I've been through this before. Goran . . . "

He meant the 2001 champion Goran Ivanisevic, and their stop-and-go, rain-punctuated semifinal that spread over three days. It was Henman's best shot at the title.

Act III, yesterday afternoon, was the best part. Not only had rain taken the day off but they even attracted that shy and elusive sun -- for a few minutes. But mostly the sky looked like tons of coal.

"It was a great atmosphere, even if most were for Tim," said Moya, who ranks No. 22. "It was fun the way we played."

Fun to behold, too. Moya, the solid baseliner, showed that two can play at serve-and-volley. Up the deuce set they climbed (no tiebreaker in the fifth) like Hillary and Norgay, avoiding traps that could have meant plunges to defeat.

Although this was just one sideshow in a major, and will have nothing to do with who becomes champion, it may be remembered as the tournament's most beguiling encounter. Instead of the fashionable hanging back and banging mindlessly, they tried everything, ever seeking the net, making few mistakes despite the difficult volleying and angled duels.

Henman held to 10-9 through two deuces, finishing with a sweet court-length forehand. Moya got to 10-10 but was 2 points from dismissal. Henman's crisis was the nine-minute 23d game. Barely hanging on to 12-11 as his claque gasped, he eliminated 2 break points with aces, and completed the game with a second-ball ace.

"It was a kicker that took a weird bounce," sighed Moya.

Fired up by his determined self-defense, Henman had Moya out on the yardarm facing 2 match points, one on a nifty lob. The Spaniard dodged with winners, a serve on one, a volley on the other.

But Henman wouldn't let up, moving to match point No. 7 with a lusty forehand. Cornered, Moya tossed for a second serve and swung.

"I tried to make it too good," he said.

The ball floated beyond the service line. Double fault on lucky 7 for Henman.

"At that stage, you'll take any gifts," he said. "You might prefer a great shot of your own, but I was happy to see it go long."

So was tennis-poor Britain, and pleased that Henman, closing in on his 33d birthday, can still scuttle a Spaniard or two, maybe Feliciano Lopez today.

But the Armada hasn't disappeared. Rafa Nadal is still around, looking to flog would-be Francis Drakes.

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