Brian Viner's Column: Henman's Hollywood appeal

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The Independent Online
The film star Richard Dreyfuss sat alongside me in the Centre Court press box on Friday, watching Tim Henman survive his Close Encounter of the Third Round. OK, it wasn't all that close, but it would be a shame to forsake the gag. Besides, the 6-1, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 scoreline did rather flatter Henman, for his French opponent Sebastien Grosjean hit plenty of rasping winners, hurried and scurried impressively and, at one set all, looked as though he might just upset the applecart. In the modern fashion, Grosjean wore a wrong-way-round baseball cap. It seems like a lifetime since the most dashing headgear at Wimbledon was Frew McMillan's flat cap, which made him look as though he'd taken a wrong turn on the way to the local bowls club.

But back to the press box, where Dreyfuss applauded wildly every time Henman hit a winner. Anywhere else on Centre Court this would have constituted perfectly reasonable behaviour. But there is an unwritten rule in the press box: No Clapping. A ding-dong 20-shot rally terminated by the daintiest of drop volleys is greeted by a twitch of the odd bushy eyebrow. In acclaim of a 135mph second-serve ace, there might even be a murmur of approval. The crowd, meanwhile, is going ballistic. But the assembled hacks like to affect a seen-it-all nonchalance. Old-timers still talk of the day that a vulgar arriviste - the Mirror's rubicund royal correspondent James Whitaker - not only clapped a great point but actually cheered.

Dreyfuss was forgivably oblivious to all this, although a young lad I took to be his son had the right idea, concentrating studiously on his Game Boy and barely registering the fact that there was a spot of tennis going on. Arguably the Dreyfusses should not have been in the press box at all, but Cerberus didn't seem to mind. Cerberus, you'll recall, was the many-headed dog who guarded Hades, now reincarnated as the chap who makes sure that no interlopers get into the Centre Court seats reserved for journalists, players and players' families and friends. His counterpart on No 1 Court, a sergeant-major in the Grenadier Guards, is an absolute pussy-cat by comparison. And Cerberus himself, I'm quite sure, is a sweetie for 50 weeks of the year.

The Henman entourage was there in force on Friday, principally Ma and Pa, both sporting rather daring straw hats, and of course Lovely Lucy. Behind them sat a veritable who's who of English and French tennis - or, at any rate, Jeremy Bates, Guy Forget and Franccoise Durr. And when Henman dropped the second set my neighbour, John Haylett - distinguished editor of the tennis magazine Ace - muttered to me that he hoped Anglo-French history did not repeat itself, for Bates had once beaten Forget 6-1 in a first set at Wimbledon only to lose the match. You might not get passion in the press box, but you certainly get top trivia.

In actual fact there was less passion generally on Centre Court than might have been expected. The intermittent calls of "Come on Tim" rang out as usual, and there were predictable tears of mirth at that most hilarious of Wimbledon spectacles, a pigeon swooping dangerously close to the baseline. But the cheers from Court Two, where souped-up Australian fans were noisily encouraging Mark Philippoussis, made us feel as though we were missing the main event. And in a sense we were for, after Philippoussis had dispatched Clavet, Jim Courier embarked on his epic and exhausting five-set victory over Sjeng Schalken. Henman can surely count on more animated support today on Centre Court. There he meets his Davis Cup nemesis Courier who, one hopes, to use the correct medical terminology, will still be knackered.

I love going to Wimbledon, but there is always the niggling worry that another court might be the place to be. That niggle is removed by staying at home and watching the telly. But the telly does not capture the essence of the occasion. It is fascinating to amble round watching dreams being at once realised and dashed, not in the dazzling limelight of the show courts, but in front of a few dozen spectators without a clue who they are watching. After Henman's victory I wandered over to watch a first- round mixed-doubles match on Court Five and it was like leaving Old Trafford for Gresty Road, home of Crewe Alexandra. Nowhere near as imposing, but twice as intimate.

Since you asked, Knowles and Likhovtseva beat Tebbutt and Barclay 6-4, 6-3. Not exactly a quartet of household names but they played some sublime tennis, and there was one spectacular rally. And safely away from my peers in the press box, having first checked over both shoulders, I don't mind admitting it. I clapped.