Drive, dignity, lovely manners, but are they the stuff of champions? Ronald Atkin on a great white hope
NOW is the time of year when the world's premier tennis tournament becomes Tim-bledon. The British nation - minus that part of it not utterly besotted with the World Cup - develops Henmania, a condition of mounting hysteria based on the improbable notion that a native-born Englishman can become the Men's Champion for the first time since FJ Perry 62 years ago

The burden of expectation is frightening and the shoulders are not all that broad but Tim Henman has not yet buckled. Yesterday he gave his fans a scare but made it to the fourth round, beating Byron Black, a capable opponent from Zimbabwe, in four sets. He has never come closer to emulating Perry than the quarter-finals, but Henman enables the British to suspend their disbelief. During the winter, they have watched television advertisements contemplating the possibility of Henman winning Wimbledon, and, although the form book gives no support to the idea, they are met with a minimum of derision, perhaps because Henman is the nearest thing to Middle England's sporting hero.

Despite the anticipation, the 23-year-old from the Oxfordshire village of Weston-on-the-Green, who lives in Barnes, south-west London, has managed to retain perspective and modesty in equal proportion to ambition. Not for him the breast-baring of Jimmy Connors. If Wimbledon, or any other Grand Slam tournament, is to be annexed it will be done the Henman way: "You have to stay very much in control of your emotions because you can be playing in front of 14,000 people who aren't in control of theirs."

Even in the most intense moments of competition his reactions rarely amount to more than a skipping turn away from the net and a clenched fist after a winning point. After the best win of his career, over the defending champion Richard Krajicek at Wimbledon last summer, Henman did permit himself raised arms.

One reason he provokes so much public empathy is that, unlike so many sporting heroes, he is an agreeable personality, familiar with good manners. The youngest son of Jane, a dress designer, and Tony, a solicitor, Henman has tennis in the blood: his maternal great-grandmother, Ellen Stanwell- Brown, was the first woman to serve overarm at Wimbledon; his grandmother Susan Billington the last to serve underarm there; and his grandfather Henry Billington played in the Davis Cup. Jane Henman played Junior Wimbledon as a girl, and as soon as her own three sons Michael, Richard and Tim could walk she introduced them to the sport on the family's grass court.

From these roots Henman developed his laid-back, outwardly nonchalant style. When Jane and Tony Henman watch their son playing they will applaud politely. Whatever their emotions, there is no external evidence. Dignity is a family trait as well as determination.

It is no coincidence that the sporting icons Tim admires are profoundly single-minded - the golfer Nick Faldo and the snooker champion Stephen Hendry. "As a child Tim always wanted to play tennis," said Jane Henman. By the age of nine Tim had won tennis scholarships and joined the David Lloyd Slater Group. "He used to cry whenever he lost," Lloyd recalls: "What I liked most of all about Tim was his quality of never giving in. He wanted success badly, even at that age."

Lloyd, who is now Henman's Davis Cup captain, insists that the impression of Tim as bland, or even dull, is wide of the mark. "Just because he comes from a middle-class background and behaves himself doesn't mean he's dull. He has a very good sense of fun and is actually quite outspoken." Those qualities are rarely revealed, even to journalists who regularly cover his matches and his movements. "Hopefully" is a word he uses a lot in interviews. Once, on behalf of one of his sponsors, Midland Bank, Henman did 39 interviews in a day.

Close friends speak of a gregarious character who likes to cadge a cigarette, has a fondness for a glass or two of wine, and is good company on the golf course. He also enjoys playing football, though his participation is confined to goalkeeping since he broke his leg in three places in 1994. That accident happened playing tennis in Singapore. "I just pushed off on the leg and there was this big crunch. I tried not to think about it too much but if you've broken something in three places you tend to worry about your career prospects." Henman was out for the best part of six months. After that his rise was meteoric. As fast as the goals were set, they were achieved. Into the top 100, the top 50, the top 20. In January last year, after winning his first ATP Tour title in Sydney, he reached 14th in the world, which remains his highest ranking to date. The top 10, his next target, was within his sights when Henman suffered the other serious injury of his career, a damaged elbow, exacerbated when he was playing golf, which needed an operation in 1997.

As the demands and the expectations soared, Henman suddenly found he was not alone as what one publication called "the bright, shining saviour of British tennis". A 6ft 4in Canadian with a wide grin and a rocket serve called Greg Rusedski had decided in 1995 he wanted to play for Britain and make his home here rather than in Montreal, where he was born.

It was when Rusedski overtook Henman in the rankings and especially when he reached the final of the US Open last September that the strain began to show. Henman did not take kindly to being usurped as British number one. The rivalry was declared good for British tennis, interest in the sport began to grow and the Lawn Tennis Association had not one, but two stars to build on.

But the two didn't get along; they are very different personalities with different interests and tastes. After Rusedski had won various Sportsman of the Year awards at the end of 1997 Henman was misguided enough to put his name to a ghosted article under the headline "You're really getting on my nerves, Greg", which accused Rusedski of "sitting there grinning and collecting all the prizes". By the time Britain qualified for this year's World Team Cup, the first time it had done so in 19 years, the two men were not on speaking terms. Because Henman would not play, Britain withdrew. David Lloyd managed to repair the rift in time for the Davis Cup tie against Ukraine in Newcastle in April and the pair played doubles together. But the victory handshake was a formal one. No hugs, no high- fives.

Though the frostiness has melted, the rivalry remains razor-keen. Rusedski resides comfortably in the top 10 but Henman has to be careful not to drop out of the top 20. At Wimbledon Henman remains a hero but his game, his relationship with his coach and friend, David Felgate, his love life with Lucy Heald, a tennis television company producer two years his senior, and his career prospects are increasingly under scrutiny as his earnings from prize money, endorsements and contracts propel him into the millionaire class.

Although he was described as "a certainty for the top 10" by John McEnroe, Henman has not advanced notably since he won his second tournament in Tashkent last September. A place in the Sydney final and Key Biscayne semi-finals are the brightest moments of 1998 to date and there have been rumblings for nine months now about a perceived lack of consistency and top-level ability.

Henman possesses a mighty serve, but his first serve does not land on target anywhere near often enough. His forehand is frequently fallible and unreliable, his game plan sometimes non-existent and the ability to close out a match frequently in question. He is fast building a reputation as someone with the ability to beat the best and then lose to the worst, as he did at Queen's Club two weeks ago, defeating Goran Ivanisevic and then later the same day losing to an Italian qualifier ranked 253rd.

Under a headline accusing Henman of "losing the mind game" one daily broadsheet accused him of "descending from penthouse to basement without stopping at levels in between". Henman readily admits that he too is frustrated by the inconsistency and that he still has much to learn. There have been criticisms that Felgate is more of a friend than a coach and that he should get a new adviser if he wants to make more significant progress but Henman, from a family that clearly prizes friendship and loyalty, has rejected such comments. Felgate has introduced him to the best practice partners, such as Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, currently Henman's doubles partner.

Fortunately, there is no question mark over his determination. "Where I get it from I don't know," he says. "I am just grateful it's there. Perhaps it's because from an early age I knew what I wanted to do." Whether Henman will achieve all he has wanted from that early age is open to question. The jury is out on his ability to get to the very top - or even to overtake Rusedski in the rankings - but the goodwill is enormous among those who follow tennis.

"It's not in my nature to worry if things aren't going well," he has said. "When I'm winning and doing well my feet don't leave the ground and when I struggle I tend not to hit the panic buttons because I know I will come out the other side." Above all, Henman has trained himself to deal with the pressures on him, which are even greater this year since Rusedski 's withdrawal through injury.

And, even in the middle of the swirl of Wimbledon, where he really is someone special, Henman is aware of the need to keep in contact with normality. The family would expect nothing less.