Tim Henman: Back in shape and happy to be cast as dangerous outsider

He has a hill named after him - but he is not over it yet. Ronald Atkin talks to a very British hero forced to adjust his grass game
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There is a spring in the step once more, a glint in the eye. Heavens, if Tim Henman were an extrovert a strut might even be on the cards. The reasons for the good cheer are simple: Britain's finest post-war Wimbledon performer declares his ailing back is behaving and his form right now is, to purloin his own description, "fantastic".

Accordingly, the man who was for so long not only Britain's leading player but our only realistic contender at Wimbledon is looking forward to his 13th tilt at The Championships. Perhaps no longer a realistic contender at the age of 31, ranked 76th in the world and third among Britain's men, but someone who considers his cause is not hopeless after the gloom which enveloped him following last year's miserable second- round departure.

The man who once said winning Wimbledon was his destiny concedes such ambition "is a lot further from my mind than it has been in previous years", and explains: "I am obviously content with the way I am playing and how I am feeling, but now it is different. Once you could look at just half-a-dozen guys who had a legitimate chance of winning it, but I just don't think that's the case any more. There are probably more than a dozen.

"There's no doubt Roger Federer is the favourite, but then you also have to look at Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic, Ivo Karlovic. There's a whole host of guys with a chance."

Would he include his own name on that list? "Yeah, down the pecking order a bit, but I don't see why not if I can stay healthy and can have another good run."

A good run was what he has enjoyed in the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club, despite serving lapses in surmounting Friday's quarter-final against his nemesis, Dmitry Tursunov, and a disappointing final set of his semi-final against Lleyton Hewitt yesterday. Henman attributes the turn-around to a positive frame of mind, allied to a belated realisation that he has been playing the wrong sort of tennis for the slower grass and heavier balls provided these days at Wimbledon. It comes close to beggaring belief in such an intelligent athlete that nearly four years have passed before the penny dropped, but that is what he tells us.

"In the last two or three years I have struggled with my style on grass because the conditions have changed so much," he says at Queen's. "To go from one end of the spectrum, where you are serve-volleying on both balls, to suddenly say you are not going to serve-volley at all is difficult, given my style and nature to be able to do that. That is the fact that has held me back.

"I've always liked the ball coming off the court and on to the racket but that doesn't happen any more, so there's a lot more adjusting to do. I like a target, but you don't get a target on grass now because so few people serve and volley. You could count on one hand the number of times I serve and volley in a match now. But the number of times I finish the point at the net is still high."

Though his ranking has plummeted (from sixth at the start of last season to 37th at the end of 2005 and now twice as low again), Henman claims: "In the last three, three-and-a-half months I have been very happy with the way I have played. Look at the players I have beaten, some really good wins. The one aspect I would like to improve is the consistency to actually string it together for three, four matches. And that's what I have managed to do here at Queen's. My standard has been very high. There have been very few dips and I feel I have been the one dominating and dictating, and on grass, even though the style of play has changed, it's still about getting on the offensive."

So, then, can Our Hero get the fans whooping up on Henman Hill in a week or so? "I don't tend to look that far ahead," says the 31-year-old, with a shake of the head. "As I have got older and more experienced I recognise the emphasis on controlling the things that you can do, and that's the most exciting aspect right now. I certainly feel fit and healthy and have a clear picture in my mind of the way I want to play matches, sets, games, points. When you can piece that together, that's going to give you the foundation. So let's deal with it at the Stella and then move on to Wimbledon."

Those wide, load-bearing shoulders have taken the strain of a nation's expectations and hopes for many Wimbledons now, and Henman has responded by reaching four semi-finals and four quarter-finals. Yet he denies ever being affected by the demands of media and public that he should go the distance for them.

"That is something you are obviously going to be aware of, but if you look at my record over the years it has never had an impact on me. I have always done a good job of going about my business, playing the matches and controlling what I can control." Despite having slid outside the top 50 this year, Henman insists he is on the way back after a nightmare 2005, the low point of which was his second- round Wimbledon exit to Tursunov. "What happened last year was an accumulation from 2004, of having played so much tennis and having probably my best-ever year [he reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and the US Open].

"After that I had a very limited off-season and preparation because I was struggling so much with my back and just never felt like I could get started and get fit. By the time I came to Wimbledon I felt exhausted. I wasn't happy with the way I was playing, I wasn't happy with the way I was feeling on the court, I was getting frustrated with the conditions.

"Wimbledon was just one bad tournament and it ended up being one pretty bad year, but it was my first bad year since turning professional in 1992."

Henman feels the malaise extended back to the Wimbledons of 2003 and 2004, when he lost at the quarter-final stage to Sébastien Grosjean and Ancic respectively. "No disrespect to them, but I was playing averagely at best, little above poorly really. So it was the competitive instinct that was basically getting me through to that stage. When you are talking about progressing and winning the tournament you have got to be playing a lot better than I was.

"It is always disappointing to lose at Wimbledon, but what was so different about last year was not only that I was struggling physically but mentally I was in a bad frame of mind. That showed, not only in my demean-our and attitude on court, but also in my performance.

"But I have dealt with all those things now, and as long as my back stays healthy I feel confident. But the slower conditions and heavier balls are not going to change, so it's about dealing with them, which is where I want to do a better job this time round."

Doing a better job inevitably tips the publicity seesaw his way, as he stresses politely. "That just emphasises the fact that on the media side everything is so short-term and doesn't mean much. And that is what Andy Murray is going to have to learn to deal with, because it doesn't take long to turn things around.

"I hope Andy would agree I have done as good a job as I can, passing on my experience and giving him advice whenever I felt it possible and wherever he wanted it. But he is 19 and has to experience these things. It's important he keeps working some of these things out for himself, because that's when he will be able to learn and progress himself as a player. Until that happens, it is harder to learn.

"So it's a journey and he is at the beginning of a very, very long journey, and there are going to be ups and downs over a long time to come. We are talking about a decade."

Henman, of course, does not have the luxury of another decade in the game, for which he may well be grateful, so the here and now is what concerns him, the "fantastic" combination of playing well and feeling comfortable on court. "I just want to keep building from that, it gives me a lot of confidence," he smiles.

That confidence may be vital when the Wimbledon draw is made on Friday, since for the first time in a decade he will not be seeded. "I would much rather be seeded, that goes without saying, because there is a certain amount of protection there. But now, for me, it's the luck of the draw and I will need a bit of luck, because there are a few guys you would like to avoid in the early rounds, Federer and Roddick, those type of guys."

Then the new confidence in which Henman has cloaked himself comes to the fore as he puts in the last word: "But I am sure that there are a lot of players who will want to avoid me as well."

Life & Times

NAME: Timothy Henry Henman.

BORN: 6 September 1974, Oxford.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 12st 2lb.


RANKING: 76th. Highest: 4th, August 2002.

TITLES: singles 11 including Paris Masters '04; doubles 4.

HIGHLIGHTS: Wimbledon semi-finalist 1998 - 1st Briton for 25 years - '99, 2001, '02; quarter-finalist '96-04. French Open semi-finalist '04 - first Briton for 41 years. US Open semi-finalist '04.

DAVIS CUP: '94-04, 19 ties, 36 wins, 14 defeats (26-8 in singles).


FAMILY LINKS: Grandfather played at Wimbledon 1948, '50, '51. Great- grandmother was first lady to serve overarm at Wimbledon 1901.