Henman is the key to home revival

John Roberts meets Britain's No 1 tennis player who is reaping the benefits of a healthy rivalry
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The Independent Online
They seem odd comrades, Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. Born on the same date, a year and an ocean apart, the new Brit and the true Brit have given the Davis Cup team a pulse 12 months after the deathly retreat from Bratislava.

A first-round tie against Slovenia in the Euro/African Zone Group Two on an indoor court in Newcastle at the weekend is unlikely to distract the Toon Army from ruminating over the destiny of the Premiership, but in national tennis terms it represents progress.

This time last year, Henman's promotion to singles coincided with the lowest point in the team's history, a 5-0 whitewash on the slow clay of the Slovak Republic leading to the brink of Group Three; effectively the Fourth Division of a competition inaugurated in 1900 as a sociable tussle between the United States and Britain.

Three events conspired in Britain's favour: the high-profile David Lloyd took over as the team captain, the highly ambitious Rusedski forsook Canada for his mother country (to be precise, the country where his mother was born), and when it came to a relegation play-off in July, Monaco were as out of place on the Eastbourne lawns as the Brits usually are on everyone else's patch of clay.

Three more victories and we'll be on the road to... well, to Euro/African Zone Group One.

But the Davis Cup is only part of it. By welcoming Rusedski with an open mind and in a spirit of rivalry, rather than the rancour of one or two of his British colleagues, Henman did himself a huge favour.

The 21-year-old national champion from Oxford has used Rusedski as a stalking horse, and on Monday, he nosed four places in front of him in the world rankings, advancing to No 54. Before we know it, Britain could have two men in the top 50. Last time the Lawn Tennis Association was able to scan the ranking list with eyes so high was in July, 1978, when Buster Mottram was the No 17 and John Lloyd No 27.

"I think if you look back at when Jeremy [Bates] was at the peak of his career, he never really had anyone else in this country really pushing him forward, somebody to compete against," Henman said. "But for me it was almost perfect timing for Greg to arrive.

"I can understand how other people maybe didn't really take to it so keenly, but I never had any problem with it, and he's been a very important benchmark for me, somebody to look up to and try and emulate in a lot of areas. He's been sort of a target of mine. It's inevitable that I am going to have weeks where I don't play as well as I'd like to. If at the same time Greg can have a good week, there's still going to be something positive for British tennis.

"Greg's arrival on the scene has made a big difference, and most of the guys in the top 15 in this country have improved their ranking. So there's definitely a buzz about things, and it does look healthier than it has for quite a few years."

That much is encouraging for David Felgate, the former tour professional who travels as Henman's coach and also has wider responsibilities as the manager of the men's national training department for the Lawn Tennis Association. Rumblings, however, threaten to destabilise the situation. The question has been raised whether it is practicable for Felgate to devote so much time to one player while running a department.

Henman is confident Felgate will remain by his side. "David's a hell of a lot more than just a coach," he emphasised. "He's a great friend who I can talk to and discuss virtually everything about my career. He's been the most important person in my career, so long may it continue.

"Obviously if you look at it bluntly, he does have two pretty major jobs, and I think a lot of people have questioned whether he can do both. From my point of view I am very happy with the way things are, and I've been anxious not to change something that for me is working very well."

The significance of coaches is largely in the minds of players. Some of the leading competitors, Boris Becker for example, seem to change their coach as often as their shirt. "It's more a question, I think, of horses for courses," Henman said. "Some of the top guys do seem to switch coaches quite regularly and it doesn't seem to matter so much to them. The reason why they do that I don't know, but that's not the way I'd work."

Much has been made of Henman's middle-class background, which would only be an impediment if he lacked the hunger to succeed. His tennis heritage is silver spoon, which is infinitely preferable to a wooden one. The dynasty can be traced to the turn of the century, to Henman's great-grandmother, Ellen Stawell-Brown, credited with being the first woman to serve overarm at Wimbledon. Apparently her technique was a high toss and a spin of the body before hitting the ball.

Ellen married a Berkshire doctor, and one of their three children, Susan, is reckoned to be the last woman to serve underarm at Wimbledon. "As the story goes," Henman recalled, "my great-grandmother told my grandmother an overarm serve was a bit strenuous and told her to stick to serving underarm."

Susan's husband, Henry Billington, was a Wiltshire farmer who played for the Davis Cup team and made 15 appearances at Wimbledon, giving Donald Budge a decent game in the second round in 1938, when the American was en route to the first Grand Slam.

Three Billington children played at junior Wimbledon. One of them, Jane, is Tim's mother. She has represented Berkshire and Oxfordshire and is a member of the All England Club. Tim's father, Tony, a solicitor, has played tennis, hockey, squash and cricket for Oxfordshire and football for Headington United (now Oxford United).

Tim, the youngest of three brothers, tends to take the family history for granted, except when visitors are shown the sepia photographs. "From their attire it doesn't look like they're ready to play tennis, that's for sure."

It will come as no surprise that the player Henman admires most is the exemplary Stefan Edberg, and it so happens that the personable youngster has a couple of things in common with the Swede. Aside from owing much to the coaching of an Englishman (Tony Pickard in Edberg's case), both have been in trouble for whacking balls in frustration.

Ten years ago Edberg was fined $350 (pounds 232) during a tournament in Los Angeles. He had intended to strike the ball harmlessly into the net, but it zoomed between a couple of line judges. Edberg's confession to the seamy side of his past has become something of a party piece ("I'm still paying off the fine," is the punchline). Henman's experience was chastening. It will be difficult to live down his action at Wimbledon last summer, when he became the first player in the Open era to be disqualified by the All England Club after accidentally hitting a ball-girl in the head.

While it would be wrong to suggest umpires have come to suspect Henman of being trigger-happy, he was penalised a point during last month's Lipton Championships in Florida after twice hitting a ball in anger. "Obviously I was very concerned at Wimbledon about the whole thing, because it was so unexpected and to be defaulted was a great shock to me," he said.

"But it's not something I'm reckoning on doing again. With regard to Lipton, I think that was probably the first time I've ever had a warning barring Wimbledon, so it's not something I'm concerned about, because I know I don't have a problem with that. If other people do try and make a meal of it, that's up to them."

Although he caught the odd glimpse of Fred Perry wandering about Wimbledon, Henman never got to meet the greatest English player, who died in February 1995. Rather than be inhibited by Perry's record, however, he views it as an inspiration.

"When I've been growing up, coming through in junior tennis, it's almost been used as a negative against us," he said. "It's always been reported that we haven't had a Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry, emphasising how poor the standard of British tennis has been. But I think it's something I've tried to use as a positive to spur me on to try and achieve whatever I can in the game.

"People do start putting labels on your head about being the next British hope, as it were, but I've never had a problem with dealing with that. I've always remembered, with the help of people around me, that I've just got to concentrate on what I do best. If I keep working and do the things that I've done, then I'm sure that I will continue to have good results."