Britain serves up a winner

The success of Tim Henman threatens to confound the national stereotype of heroic failure. Matt Tench traces the rise of a rare champion
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The Independent Online
Until recently the odds on a Briton winning Wimbledon were, in the words of the Ladbrokes' spokesman, "about the same as the second coming". This was hardly surprising, the bookies simply endorsing the national stereotype Britain reserves for its tennis players: foppish, lightly-tanned young men, who pulled out the odd nice shot or two before losing gracefully to an unknown Swede in the tournament's early rounds. Their fame was brief and brittle. Like their sport they rarely got any coverage outside Wimbledon fortnight.

Which is one of many reasons why Tim Henman is not your average British tennis player. The last 12 months have seen the 22-year-old from Oxford break through in his sport and, typically, he has been as impressive in the winter months as he was in June and July. At the beginning of December he reached the semi-final of the Grand Slam Cup, the ludicrously lucrative end-of-season bash in Munich. If that was progress, his start to 1997 has been little short of phenomenal. A week ago he made it to his first significant final, a feat he bettered at the weekend by winning the Sydney International, his first major title.

In these tournaments he was beating players we have all heard of: Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic and Sergei Bruguera, for example. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year, starts today in Melbourne, and for the first time in living memory a Briton goes into such a prestigious event with a chance of winning it, albeit a slim one. Whatever happens, Henman has done enough already to show he is the best British tennis player for a generation, and maybe much more.

His rise could not be better timed, coming as it does at a time when two of middle England's favourite sports have given their followers little apart from depression and humiliation. England's cricketers have been in decline for a decade now, but even by their own standards the recent routing in the one-day series by Zimbabwe marks something of a nadir. England's rugby union team does still win matches - though not against the world's better teams - but here the frustration focuses on the game's antediluvian rulers who have completely botched the move to professionalism.

But if Henman's rise has been fortuitous, it was certainly not predictable. For generations the juxtaposition of Wimbledon - the most successful and most important tennis tournament in the world - and the lamentable inadequacy of British tennis players was one of the fixed paradoxes on the sporting landscape. Year after year the All England Club would announce record profits, year after year more was put into the development of the game in this country, year after year British interest at Wimbledon would end by the first Thursday. So where has our new hero come from?

For most of his tennis life Tim Henman has been barely distinguishable from many of his contemporaries; gifted, but certainly not a prodigy. His bloodline, it is true, could hardly be bettered. Ellen Stawell-Brown, his great-grandmother, was the first woman to serve overarm at Wimbledon; his grandmother, Susan, with a nice sense of symmetry, the last woman to serve underarm. Her husband, Henry Billington, made 15 appearances at the championships, reaching the third round on several occasions. Three of their children, including Tim's mother Jane, competed in junior Wimbledon. His father, Tony, is no slouch either, playing tennis, squash, hockey and cricket for Oxfordshire as well as pursuing a successful career as a solicitor.

Tim, the youngest of three brothers, first picked up a racket at the age of three, and it was immediately clear that he had a gift for the game - and he soon developed a somewhat precocious ambition. Asked recently when he first realised he would pursue a career in tennis, Henman answered, without a trace of irony, "from the age of five or six". Certainly those who met Henman, even in his earliest years, were struck by the determination and focus of a schoolboy who was, in the words of David Lloyd, "nicely selfish".

Lloyd, a member of Britain's most famous tennis family and the founder of a lucrative string of indoor tennis centres, came across Henman as the beneficiary of one of his scholarships. Still there was no sign that the teenage Henman, who was small for his age, was anything special. That breakthrough came in 1992 when, at 17, he was invited by Bill Knight, then head of training at the Lawn Tennis Association, to join three others to be coached by David Felgate. Recalling that time this week, Knight remembered that it was another member of the group, Nick Gould, who began as its outstanding player but that "in a comparatively short space of time Tim was number two. By 1993 he was number one".

The choice of Felgate, still in his twenties, was intriguing. A British player whose achievements had been modest, he returned from America having done some private coaching and offered his services to the LTA. Knight, though concerned about Felgate's lack of experience, was struck by his knowledge of the game and his contacts within it. Under Felgate's tutelage all four improved rapidly, but Henman's transformation was remarkable. "He obviously had more talent than other people," Knight said. "He knew and felt the game much better. And he understood what he had to do to get better. He could understand what David Felgate could give him, and more. He knew what he had to do to become a better player."

Blessed with tremendous natural talent - "great hands", in the language of the professionals - Henman, unusually, was prepared to put the hours in as well. "When things come easy to you, it's easy not to work," as Bill Knight puts it.

By now Henman and Felgate had forged a strong working and personal relationship and as Henman continued to improve, so Felgate spent more and more time with him, a progression that reached its natural conclusion recently when he became Henman's full-time coach (his wife, Jan, is Henman's agent).

Having made an impact as a junior, the next step for Henman was the satellite circuit, the one beneath the top level, the ATP tour. For some this dog- eat-dog world, with its modest hotels and negligible public interest, is an insurmountable hurdle. James Baily, for instance, made an earlier impact than Henman when, at 17, he become the first Briton to win a junior boys' grand slam title for 28 years. Eighteen months later he was out of the game. "I'd become a monomaniac," he later recalled. "As I got older I wanted to go out more, have a drink, have girlfriends, lead a normal life. I was brain dead most of the time."

Baily found the the satellite world unbearable. "Everyone was so much friendlier at junior level. The satellites are just torture. No one talks to you, and you don't talk to anybody. No one really wants to be there. It could be very lonely."

Buttressed perhaps by his inherent love of the game, Henman, with Felgate at his side, sailed through. He was just beginning to make an impact on the tour itself when his professional career hit its first - and to date only - crisis. It was an incident that certainly established him as not your average British tennis player: he was disqualified from Wimbledon.

This unique disgrace - one that had even eluded John McEnroe - came during a doubles match in the 1995 championships. Henman, playing with Jeremy Bates on Court 14, missed the ball after it hit the net cord. As a ball- girl moved in, Henman lashed out at another ball, one he was holding, hitting the girl, who was only a foot away, full on the ear. Henman was immediately thrown out for "unsportsmanlike conduct", and was close to tears at a hastily arranged press conference. "It was a complete accident, but I'm responsible for my actions," he said.

It may have been as well that the incident occurred while Henman was relatively unknown. Twelve months later he took the championships by storm, and his life would never be the same again.

The catalyst was a first-round five-set victory over Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the newly-crowned French Open champion. Henman raced into a two-set lead, but allowed his Russian opponent to win the next two and go a break up in the final one. It seemed a familiar tale of brave British failure, but to the delight of the Centre Court crowd Henman responded with two further breaks to win the match. He went on to become the first Briton to reach the quarter-finals since 1973, but it was his fighting spirit that left an indelible mark.

"I remember thinking that I'd watched a number of British tennis players making names for themselves at Wimbledon by playing really well, but the sad fact was that they lost in those matches," Henman told The Independent in an interview last month. "I decided I didn't want to be put in the same bracket."

Henman's coolness under pressure is probably his greatest asset, a fitting one for someone whose all-time hero is Bjorn Borg. He wins more than his fair share of tie-breaks and makes a habit of fighting back after losing the first set. At the same time he possesses a range of shot that impressed McEnroe among others, at the US Open two months after Wimbledon.

Where will it all end? There are already signs of Henmania, with a teenage female following and a degree of interest in his exploits that would have seemed absurd only a year ago. A placard for his match in the Davis Cup on No 1 court last September simply said, "Timbledon".

The man himself appears unfazed. A popular and relaxed member of the tour, he has recently moved to London and greets his fame with a mixture of amusement and bemusement. "In Moscow, while I was playing out there, Tina Turner was in concert," he recalled recently. "Her manager happens to be English, and he sent a message asking if I would like to come and see the concert and meet her afterwards. Imagine that? I would have gone up to her in complete awe, and she would probably turned round and said, `Who the fuck are you?' "

Wimbledon this year would appear made for him. Having, at the end of last year, identified strength and stamina as areas that need to be addressed, there are already signs of progress, while Boris Becker's advice to follow his service in more has also borne fruit. Many experts think grass will prove his best surface.

Certainly with no major football tournament this summer, and England's cricketers all but certain to be losing disastrously to the Australians, the nation will be crying out for a hero by June. To expect a victory would be unfair, but he could easily surpass last year's exploits. One thing's for sure. If Tim Henman does win Wimbledon, even Tina Turner will know who he is.