Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Henman & Sampras, England vs USA.
If Henman is a loser what about the rest?
As Wimbledon approaches the player who has inspired so much midsummer madness on London's lawns talks to Paul Weaver
Wednesday April 12, 2006
Another Tim Henman Wimbledon is coming, if you can bear it - another "C'mon Tim" fortnight in which the strawberries and cream will turn into the custard pies of disappointment and jokes well before the end. Given that this will be one of the last - Oxford's apple-cheeked finest will be 32 this year and has a dodgy back - will make the annual appointment with neurosis and masochism at the heart of every Henman engagement on the London lawns even more intense. At least it will take people's minds off that Davis Cup defeat by Serbia & Montenegro, a result that underlined his enduring importance to British tennis.
With rumours of imminent retirement providing a backdrop to his fronting of a new schools coaching programme, he was in unusually reflective mood. "What is success?" he asked, with wide eyes, outstretched palms and a hint of exasperation. "My legacy, so called, is for others to decide. But if I don't win Wimbledon I will probably be judged on that. Do I think that's fair? The answer must be no.
"When I started, people said I wouldn't reach the top 200. If you had told them that I would spend five years in the top 50 they would have said 'fantastic'. But the benchmark moves. Now, after eight years in the top 20 and five years in the top five, everyone is saying I have to do more. There was a time when there were only three people better on the planet. I've won tournaments, been consistent and always given 100%. And that's success."
In fact, Henman has been an over-achiever. He has won almost £10m in prize money, with outside earnings of at least twice that figure. He has been, without doubt, Britain's finest tennis player in seven decades, has reached the world's top four and played in six grand slam semi-finals, including four at Wimbledon.
He has done so, moreover, while appearing a middleweight in the heavyweight division. He has no great strength, apart from his serve-volley - and even his serve is not that good; amid the nuclear weaponry of the men's game he appears to have been unilaterally disarmed. Yet he is popularly portrayed as a loser. Comedians taunt him, and one - the late Linda Smith - once described him as "the human form of beige".
It is Henman's misfortune that we live, vicariously, through our sporting heroes. Sport is the stuff of dreams and Henman, who works very hard and is ultimately thwarted, is a little too much like real life. Even when he wins he blows cold, for he wins without panache or true dominance, and there is usually the trauma of a dropped set or two.
He puts himself in the game's third tier. "There are the legends, like Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe and now Roger Federer, the best I've played. Then there are the great players who have won just three or four slams, and I don't get in that category either. But then there are the really good, world-class players who have been at the top for a long time. And that's my level. If I don't win a slam it's because I wasn't good enough. I never say I'm a great player."
Henman was speaking in London as he launched the Ariel Mini Tennis for Schools Programme, an initiative to make the game more accessible to the very young. "I've always tried to have an impact on the junior game and one of the really exciting aspects of the Ariel project is that they are going to target schools that haven't had any opportunity in the past. Every primary school in Britain will have the chance to register, with 100 selected in the first year."
Henman is disappointed that after a dozen years at the top he has seen Britain make little progress. "We can produce world-class footballers and athletes. We have a rugby team that recently won the World Cup and a cricket team that recently beat the best team in the world. There is no reason why we can't do the same in tennis. Why we can't be like France, Spain and Argentina, who regularly have five or six or more in the world top 50? Other countries have produced results with limited resources. I must point the finger at those fantastic juniors who haven't made the transition. They've let themselves down. They haven't shown the hard work, commitment and dedication required."
Henman raised expectation levels - before him Britain had to make do with Roger Taylor, Mark Cox, Buster Mottram, John Lloyd and Jeremy Bates - and he is given a hard time because he leaves us ultimately unfulfilled.
Wimbledon seems to have started early for him. Last month, in the Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami, he had outstanding wins over Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt before crashing out to the German qualifier Simon Greul. "Two of my best career wins were followed by one of the most bizarre losses. I was really depressed afterwards. But I'm feeling much better than in 2005, when I felt physically and mentally drained after my most successful year. And the pressure will be off a little bit at Wimbledon."
His world ranking has slipped to No63. But if he does satisfactorily in Rome and Paris next month and gets through the first round or two at SW19, the old fever will be there. Oh, the agony of it. As John Cleese said in Clockwise: "It's not the despair, I can stand the despair. It's the hope!"