IVANISEVIC beats Henman in men's semifinal

Sunday, July 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) _ Tim Henman was unable to end Britain's 63-year wait for a men's singles finalist at Wimbledon, losing to Goran Ivanisevic on Sunday in a match that took three days to complete.

Ivanisevic now gets a chance to take one more step in his climb from tennis oblivion when he faces Patrick Rafter for the championship on Monday.

Ivanisevic won the semifinal 7-5, 6-7 (6), 0-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 as thousands of disappointed fans on Henman Hill watched on a huge video screen from their perch inside Wimbledon.

The match was suspended because of darkness Friday and rain Saturday. On Sunday, Ivanisevic ended it in just four games.

``Today was match of nerves, nothing to do with tennis,'' the Croat said in broken English. ``Who's going to have more nerves and guts going to win the match.''

Ivanisevic, who entered Wimbledon with a No. 125 ranking, is the first wild card to make the final.

There's no telling what Ivanisevic _ a surefire crowd-pleaser _ might do Monday.

This is how important a Wimbledon title would be to the mercurial left-hander, who flung his shirt into the crowd after two earlier victories:

``If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and say, `OK, Goran you going to win Wimbledon tomorrow, but you not able to touch the racket ever again in your life,' I say, `OK, I rather take that and then never play tennis again.'''

For Rafter, this Wimbledon may be his last. He plans to take six months off after this year to assess his future.

Henman, stone-faced as he left Centre Court and unruffled as he spoke later, plans to be back.

``I'll be back for many more tries,'' said the 26-year-old Henman, who also lost in the semis in 1998 and 1999. ``I believe I'll win this tournament.''

He didn't Sunday as his last service return sailed wide, ending the match and leaving Bunny Austin as the most recent British men's finalist. He did it in 1938. The last British man to win was Fred Perry in 1936.

Ivanisevic's reaction when the last ball landed was subdued, for him.

He smiled, fell flat on his back, blew a kiss to the crowd and crossed himself. Then he stood on his chair at the sidelines and lifted his arms.

Henman raised his left hand, applauded the crowd and then walked off, his racket bag slung over his left shoulder and his equipment bag over his right.

Ivanisevic, right beside him, smiled some more.

``He felt the pressure. I felt the pressure, and Monday's going to be another great pressure,'' Ivanisevic said.

Rafter stands in his way. The Australian, seeded second, has been waiting since his five-set victory Friday over Andre Agassi to learn who he'd play next.

He was supposed to find out Friday, but darkness that followed a two-hour rain delay caused the match to be suspended until Saturday with Henman leading 2-1 in sets and 2-1 in the fourth set.

``It certainly was in my favor at that time,'' Henman said. ``I was sort of in the process of dismantling his game.''

Rafter also expected to know Saturday, but rain limited the players to 52 minutes on the court. That was enough time for Ivanisevic to come back for a 7-5 win in the fourth-set tiebreaker and a 3-2 lead in the fifth set when play was halted.

``Sometimes those breaks can hinder you, sometimes those breaks can help you,'' Henman said.

Ivanisevic reached the finals in 1992, 1994 and 1998 _ losing to Agassi the first time and Pete Sampras the next two.

Ivanisevic ended 1998 ranked 12th in the world, then wrestled with shoulder problems last year, finishing at 129th _ his lowest since 1988.

But strong serving carried him through the first half of the tournament and effective returns brought him Sunday's win.

Overcast skies lightened and drizzle stopped about a half-hour before the match was restarted for the last time.

The gloom didn't keep hundreds of fans from lining up on adjacent Wimbledon Park Road _ some in sleeping bags, a woman wrapped in a blue blanket and leaning on a banner saying ``Tim Henman Hill Posse'' _ hoping that when ticket sales began for the championship match Henman would be in it.

With thousands of his supporters sitting on the newly nicknamed hill, Henman held serve in the sixth game of the last set _ the first played Sunday.

Then he went up 0-30 on Ivanisevic's serve, Henman's best chance of the day. But Ivanisevic held his serve with two aces and a service winner.

Henman was in trouble from the start of the eighth game. He fell behind 15-40, giving Ivanisevic two break points. But he tied it at 40-40.

Then Henman double-faulted. He lost the game on the next point when he hit a low volley into the net off Ivanisevic's service return.

Ivanisevic, the game's toughest server when he's on, merely had to hold his serve to win. But Henman saved one match point, leaving the score at deuce.

Then Ivanisevic fired his 36th ace, coming after a fault, before Henman's final service return went out.

``I just said to myself, `Just put more returns''' in than in previous matches, Ivanisevic said. ``It's tough to wait and think who is going to win, me or him, but this is great.''