Henman the man Britain demands

Simon O'Hagan finds the LTA praying for a speedy return by the British No 1
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The Independent Online
Nobody will be more anxious that Tim Henman regains his fitness in time to play for Great Britain against Egypt in the Davis Cup in a fortnight's time than John Feaver, director of events at the Lawn Tennis Association. As the man responsible for selling tennis to a British public whose fixation with Wimbledon leaves little room in their hearts for any other domestic tournaments, Feaver needs all the help he can get - and at the moment Henman counts for a lot.

"I'm not sure the team really need him, but from my point of view it wouldn't half help," Feaver said last week. Only about a fifth of the tickets have so far been sold, a disappointing figure considering they cost pounds 6 each and that the tie will give people another last chance to see No 1 court at Wimbledon, its demolition having been delayed to accommodate the Davis Cup.

If Henman plays and the weather forecast is good, Feaver is hoping that three-quarters of the 6,500 seats will be filled on each of the three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 20 to 22 September. "What we're looking for is a lot of people paying on the day," Feaver said.

Meanwhile, Feaver is working to keep up interest in next week's international men's clay-court event at Bournemouth after Henman withdrew with the groin injury he was suffering from while on his way to the fourth round of the US Open last week. There had been, Feaver said, 15 calls from disgruntled people who had bought their tickets in the hope of seeing Henman. As it is, about 75 per cent of seats have been sold for the final a week today, but there is still plenty of space for earlier rounds.

The Bournemouth event deserves to succeed, and even in Henman's absence it probably will because it can offer other big names in Sergi Bruguera, Alberto Costa and Andrei Medvedev while tapping into a tradition of international tennis in the town, host of the British hard-court championships until 1983, and in 1968 the scene of the first tournament in the Open era anywhere in the world.

The LTA wanted to re- establish a leading men's event in Britain both to reflect and help enhance the growing status of domestic men's tennis. Unfortunately for the women that meant the end of the event that took place in Brighton until last year.

But to gain a place on the ATP tour, the LTA first had to buy another tournament - and there was one going in Bordeaux. "There were various other places competing for it," Feaver said. "Spain, Italy, Romania. So we were very pleased to get it."

If you are thinking of buying one, an ATP Tour event like Bournemouth will probably set you back between pounds 500,000 and pounds 750,000. Even with Samsung sponsoring the event to the tune of around pounds 100,000 and other deals, the LTA are underwriting the $400,000 (pounds 260,000) prize money and do not expect to make a profit for some years. Henman or no Henman, the selling of non-Wimbledon tennis in this country is a long game.