Henman's week of strengths

Click to follow
LIKE many aspects of Tim Henman's short tennis career, his straight- sets defeat by Michael Chang in the third round of the Australian Open could have been just what he needed.

A positive attitude, which Henman undoubtedly has, can make any event seem beneficial, but his exploits in the last three weeks have taken him another big step up the rankings (he will probably be No 13 after the Open), and he has earned the respect of the leading players.

After 13 matches in 19 days, 11 of which were won, Henman now has three weeks off before his next tournament. Perhaps the greatest boon is that he knows he can compete with the very best, without having raised asphyxiating expectations. In Sydney he defeated the world No 3 Goran Ivanisevic, the highest-ranked scalp of his career, but had he beaten the world No 2 Chang on an altogether bigger stage, the burden would have been enormous.

"I've never had a problem with expectations," said Henman after the Chang match. "I don't pay a great deal of attention to what people expect of me. I think I deal with it very well." But when a thousand and one people want a part of you, it becomes difficult to maintain that it doesn't affect you.

Henman's success has confounded many of the people who had the greatest hopes for him. It has long been a source of mystery and amusement on the circuit that throughout the wilderness years of British tennis the country's media still kept an army of tennis correspondents covering the world's major events.

What these journalists will be less keen for people to know is that most of them (including this writer) started the year with the feeling that Henman would do well to survive in the top 50. Reaching No 25 in October after his semi-final appearance in Ostrava was regarded as the product of a newcomer's run of form, and it was felt that once the top players learned to play the new Brit on the block, things would turn sour.

Henman's confounding not just of his critics but even of some of his admirers is consistent with the way he has risen to every challenge. In September, 1994, he broke his foot in three places in a match in Singapore and was out of action for four months, but he used the time off to work on his fitness. At Wimbledon '95 he had the humiliating experience of being defaulted after belting a ball in anger which struck a ballgirl. There were those who felt his punishment was a case of the establishment putting a young upstart in his place, but despite considerable anguish bordering on tears, he faced the media to explain that the punishment was just and he had to accept it.

His refusal to make use of excuses - often quite legitimate ones - is also a mark of his strength of character. During a match against Jared Palmer at the 1995 US Open, he stubbed his toe reaching for a wide ball at 3-3 in the third set (the match was 1-1 in sets) and lost his way for a couple of games which proved to be crucial to the outcome. Afterwards he refused to blame the incident, dismissing it as "insignificant", but to those watching it was anything but. In Sydney last week, he could have used jetlag as an excuse for a couple of loose first sets, but again declined to do so.

The factor that probably made most people doubtful of his ability to stay with the world's best was his lack of a big shot, but over the last 18 months he has worked hard on his serve and now regularly hits 10 aces in a match. The serve is particularly important because it gives him a number of "free points" which can make a difference in a close match. He has also worked on his forehand, and his tactical awareness is improving constantly.

This all reflects great credit on David Felgate, his coach, mentor and a source of tactical acumen. But perhaps Henman's greatest asset is his ability to win the points that really matter, and with tennis's scoring system you don't have to win every point, only the important ones.

The vagaries of the ranking system mean it will now become harder for him to rise further up the list. He has points coming off his tally in the coming weeks from his semi-final appearances in Shanghai, Rotterdam and Copenhagen a year ago, but if he can do well in his next three tournaments (in Dubai, Antwerp and Milan) and then win a round or two at one of the big events in Indian Wells or Key Biscayne in March, he could find himself celebrating Easter as the first British man to make it into the world's top 10.