Henman can profit from punishment

John Roberts believes disqualified Briton has the character to learn his lesson
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One act of petulance has tarnished the mild-mannered Tim Henman with the shame that escaped even John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. Whatever else the 20-year-old from Oxford may achieve in his career, he will go down in history as the first player in the Open era to be disqualified at Wimbledon.

Henman hit a ball in anger after losing a point, the sort of thing seen on all the courts every day of the Wimbledon fortnight. In this instance the ball struck a ball girl in the head. Quite rightly, Henman was shown the door and yesterday punished with a fine of pounds 2,000.

A day which began with the excitement of playing Pete Sampras, the defending champion, on Court One, ended in ignominy in a doubles match shortly before twilight on Court 14.

If odds had been offered on the first Wimbledon disqualification on record, Henman would have been an even longer shot than a British men's singles champion. A determined enough competitor with a refreshingly unflustered attitude towards being one of the nation's hopes for a brighter tennis future, his temperament had been beyond reproach until that one moment of frustration on Wednesday night.

On the wider scale, Henman is only the third player to be defaulted at the four Grand Slam championships of Wimbledon, the United States, France and Australia since tennis became a fully integrated professional sport in 1968. In the opening round of the French Open five weeks ago, Carsten Arriens, of Germany, was dismissed for throwing his racket, which hit a line judge on the ankle.

And at the 1990 Australian Open, John McEnroe finally overstepped the mark. First, he tried to intimidate a line judge by standing in front of her and glaring while tossing a ball up and down in his hand. Then he broke a racket. Finally, he swore at the Grand Slam supervisor, Ken Farrar. McEnroe greeted his disqualification with a sickly smile, saying afterwards that he did not realise the disciplinary procedure had been reduced from four steps to three.

Henman's face was white with shock, and his voice trembled as he apologised for his action and accepted the consequences. The public humiliation, he knew, would deeply hurt his family.

The Henmans are steeped in tennis, proud of its traditions and keen to preserve them. Both parents played to country standard, and Tim's grandfather, Henry Billington, was a regular competitor at Wimbledon, advancing to the third round in 1948, 1950 and 1951. He also played Davis Cup for Britain, a distinction shared by his grandson.

A natural reaction yesterday was for people to recollect McEnroe's appalling behaviour, particularly on Court One at Wimbledon in 1981, when the turbulent New Yorker ranted, raved, hurled abuse, declared the whole thing to be "the pits of the world", and got away with it. McEnroe won the tournament, but the traditional All England Club membership was withheld from him for a year, which hardly broke the American's heart.

What Henman did does not remotely compare, but he lost control in a dangerous manner and competitors must not do that. It is a harsh lesson, but one Henman must learn from and live with. And he will, if he has the character it takes to fulfil his potential.