Henman's grand reservation

Britain's leading man must deflect doubts about his ability to sustain a high level of performance

In His dreams - and all of Britain's - Tim Henman would be walking on to the Centre Court this afternoon, ready to do battle with Pete Sampras for the 1997 Wimbledon men's singles title. In fact he'll be 500 miles away, in Frankfurt - maybe just checking into his hotel room, maybe having a hit on the local courts, maybe taking a look at the TV to see how Cedric Pioline is doing in the role for which the costume was last week being made to the Englishman's measurements.

Henman will be in Germany with his Davis Cup team-mates before their match against Ukraine next weekend. The British players - Greg Rusedski, Andrew Richardson, Neil Broad, Martin Lee and Chris Wilkinson make up the squad - fly out this morning, stopping off for a couple of days in Frankfurt because David Lloyd, the captain, reckons a week is too long to hang around one place, especially if it's Kiev.

That certainly would have been quite an adjustment for men who all, in their different ways, have a lot to look back on from the last fortnight. The reality of life after Wimbledon elimination seems to have kicked in hard enough as it is, and in Henman's case it has raised a series of questions about how much further he can reasonably be expected to progress after a tournament that showed, to use his own description, the best of him and the worst of him within the space of 24 hours.

The consensus is that Henman's run to the 1997 quarter- finals took more doing than it had in 1996. His opponents were tougher, the pressure more intense. That may be so. But it's also true that Henman gave an infinitely better account of himself in losing in a tight three sets to Todd Martin last year than he did at the same stage last Thursday when, unusually for him when he gets beaten, there was almost nothing positive he could take out of his defeat by Michael Stich.

Taking matches in isolation Henman has proved that he is all but up there with the very best - one thinks of the victories over Yevgeny Kafelnikov at last year's Wimbledon and over Richard Krajicek this year. Sustained level of performance over the two weeks of a Grand Slam event is a different matter, however, requiring - quite apart from talent - concentration, adaptability, and physical and mental resources that don't dry up halfway through the second week.

All these aspects of Henman's make-up were tested in the Stich match. It didn't help that the heroics against Krajicek had needed to be spread over two days, giving Henman much less time than his opponent to prepare for the next challenge. The effect of the switch to the new No 1 Court, after Henman had virtually put down roots on the Centre Court, should not be underestimated either. Quite apart from the pronounced dissipation in atmosphere, the two surfaces were playing totally differently - the Centre Court soft and slow, the No 1 harder and bouncier.

Henman is an instinctive player. He goes for his shots. But if the conditions aren't right - or at least don't seem right - then confidence in shot- making can be quickly eroded. He says he wasn't moving well, and that, on the surface where, more than any other, everything stems from your serve, he wasn't tossing the ball high enough. He might have got away with all of this had he not been up against someone who played virtually faultless tennis. That made it all the more important that Henman took what fleeting opportunities that came his way, and in that respect his standards of ruthlessness continue to fall short of the very best.

That Henman shows character on the big points is not in question. His tie-break performances at this year's Wimbledon prove that. It's letting go those winnable but apparently insignificant points at other times that may need attending to. The break point Henman had against Stich in the first game of the match was a good example. Missing it didn't seem to matter at the time, but then you look at the way Pioline broke Rusedski in the first game of their quarter-final, and it clearly set the tone for the rest of the match.

David Felgate, Henman's coach, said afterwards that it would be "a few more years" before his man would reach his peak. Let's hope that's the case, because, by tennis standards, Henman is already a late developer. He may be only 22 (23 in September), but then Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera, Pat Cash, Stich and Kafelnikov were all younger than Henman is now when they were winning Grand Slam titles for the first time. If it's going to happen for Henman, statistics suggest it will need to happen pretty soon.

What chance the US Open in seven weeks' time? Or the Australian early next year? Bill Knight, the former LTA head of men's training who brought Felgate and Henman together, thinks that the trueness of the bounce means these tournaments actually represent a better bet for Henman than Wimbledon. "I'm convinced he'll win a Grand Slam one day," Knight says. And if it's not Wimbledon, Henman will probably be forgiven that.

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