Henman's reasons to be cheerful
By Tom Fordyce
It's not often that a man who has just lost a major final can walk away with a smile on his face.
But Tim Henman's defeat by Roger Federer in the Pacific Life Open has left the British number one in the most buoyant of moods.
Eight months ago, Henman had slipped out of the world's top 30.
A combination of his advancing years, the rise of a new generation of rivals and lingering concerns about his shoulder injury seemed to be pointing towards a gradual slide from the top of the game.
But Henman himself remained bullish while the doubts mounted. And now, despite defeat at Indian Wells, it is becoming clear why he was so confident.
Reaching Sunday's final has moved him up to eighth in the world rankings.
He is seventh in the ATP Champions Race, which is based solely on results this year.
And his tennis is reaching a standard that he has only approached on a couple of occasions in his entire career.
On the evidence of the last five months, Henman is now capable of playing consistently at a standard that he could only reach intermittently in the past.
He was always able to match the best on occasion. Now, for the first time, his concentration and consistency do not seem so likely to waver when it really matters.
Until the defeat by Federer, Henman had won his last 11 ATP Masters Series matches, including a comeback from match-point down against Andy Roddick.
Not only has his shoulder appeared pain-free, but his all-round game has been exuding an edge and - dare you say it, authority - that was only hinted at in years past.
"Against Tim, it's just a different game overall because he keeps coming at you," says Federer. "You cannot actually find that rhythm from the baseline that you're looking for.
"You feel like you're going to hit the normal backhand, then suddenly he's standing at the net hitting a volley.
"That makes you look at the ball and on the other side of the net to see where Tim is standing. It makes it extremely difficult."
Henman has always insisted that he would hit his playing peak at a much later age than his peers.
But even he must be surprised by just how well things have gone since a first-round defeat at the US Open last September.
Much of the credit must go to Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras' former coach, who has helped revitalise Henman after his split from previous coach Larry Stefanki.
"Paul has had a big impact on my game," says Henman.
"He knows the work we have been doing. As I said after I won the Masters in Paris, I didn't want that (win) to become the exception. It should become the norm to play like that."
There is only one player who can feel more content than Henman this week - and that is Federer himself.
The Wimbledon champion is no longer a maverick might-be. He is now the dominant force in men's tennis.
Federer has won his last five ATP finals (Indian Wells, Dubai, Australian Open, Tennis Masters Cup, Vienna), and has a win-loss record of 22-1 in 2004. He lost just one set at Indian Wells and now leads the Champions Race by 221 points from second-placed Marat Safin.
"I feel like now there's not many guys left who have really an edge on me," he admitted on Sunday.
Henman is one of the very few who can still approach a clash with Federer with optimism. Even taking into account Sunday's loss, he has beaten Federer in six of their eight meetings.
Intriguingly, he has had most success against the Swiss when they have been playing on faster surfaces where the bounce has been a touch uneven.
And that can only bode well on the grass of Wimbledon this summer.
Story from BBC SPORT: