How Henman became an ace

The week Britain found a tennis star: Player owes his rise to prominence to chemistry and coaching skills of Felgate
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The Independent Online
David Felgate sat quietly at the back of the room, listening to Tim Henman giving as composed a performance behind the microphone as he had just given on the tennis court. Towards the end of the press conference, someone asked Henman who he had kept looking across to in the players' box during the match against Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

"He's sitting a few seats to your left," came Henman's drily amused response, and player and coach exchanged a smile that said a lot about the nature of success at Wimbledon, the way private triumphs become public triumphs. You are an overnight sensation; everyone adores you; the brilliance of the moment blinds people to all the lesser achievements that went before.

As with any such pairing, Henman and Felgate know that victories like the one over Kafelnikov do not just happen. They have to be worked towards, and only the two people most closely involved can fully appreciate the effort and the sacrifices that have been made. The rest of us, meanwhile, see what looks like the finished article and forget what went into shaping it.

Felgate, aged 32, was once ranked in the top 10 in Britain. Henman's coach for the last four years, he has, like his charge, a friendly but controlled air about him. After the press conference had ended, though, the sheer elation he was feeling came to the surface. "I wanted to leap out of the players' box and run across the court," he confessed. "It was just unbelievable."

But he wouldn't have been doing his job properly if he hadn't been able to find some fault with a player who had, after all, won the first two sets and then put himself in a position, at 3-5 down in the fifth, where he had to save two match points. "He played a couple of slack games," Felgate said. "Not technically, but mentally." There would be time for all that to be worked on. Now it was necessary to get his man home, fed and rested. "We'll go and have a meal," Felgate said. "The trouble is he probably won't want to eat."

Coaches like things to go to plan. They live in a world of theoretical order in which this volley follows that serve and everything can be plotted in advance. The extraordinary thing about Henman's week was that it pretty much happened like that other than the fact that the weather, and the way the order of play worked out, required him to play every day for five days until finally, yesterday, he got shot of Luke Milligan, his third- round opponent, and could look forward to 48 hours off.

The Henman-Felgate relationship is clearly very special. "David should take a huge amount of credit for what's happened," Henman says. "I know how good he can be," Felgate says. "He's very good to work with. He's a bit stubborn sometimes, but that's something all the great champions have got."

Bill Knight, the former manager of men's national training at the Lawn Tennis Association, is in a unique position to assess what makes the partnership work, since it was he who brought Henman and Felgate together four years ago. "The thing is they've clicked," he said last week. "On David's side, he's young and very with it. He really knows the game very well. He's been a player himself, mixed with a lot of top players, and knows what's needed. Tim's very smart, and he's a very quick learner. And the other thing is they're both very ambitious. They know where they want to go."

Felgate had been coaching privately in America before returning to England and becoming involved at the LTA. Knight wanted to set up a squad system, whereby a group of three or four leading young players were assigned to a particular coach. "I was never keen on one-to-one coaching for young players," Knight said. Felgate was entrusted with four players, one of whom was Henman.

"David was very professional," Knight said. "The way he read players impressed me. He sawquickly who had potential, what their strengths and weaknesses were. That's a gift, I think. The players liked him, but he could be very tough with them."

Knight told a story of how Felgate had been away training with the Henman group, got fed up with them when he felt they had not been giving 100 per cent, and driven back to the hotel on his own. The players had to run back. It had taken them two hours. "I remember David ringing me and saying, 'I don't know if I've done the right thing,' " Knight said. "But there have been times when he's had a go at Tim all right. That's good. Then you don't allow things to fester or get out of hand."

Felgate's position as Henman's coach is complicated by the fact that he also does the men's training job that Knight used to do. As Henman has risen up the rankings and moved on to the senior Tour, so that is where the focus of Felgate's professional life has been centred. Whether this dual arrangement can continue is a matter of debate within the LTA, but not so much among the players themselves.

Colin Beecher, one of the lower-ranked British players, said last week that he and the others recognised that Felgate needed to be with Henman but that he still contributed a lot elsewhere. "He's got our respect because he knows the game so well," Beecher said. Henman's popularity also helped. "It couldn't be happening to a nicer guy," Beecher said.

Then there is the question of whether, ultimately, a man of Felgate's relatively modest tennis background is capable of coaching Henman to the top-20 level to which he can realistically aspire. There are those in the LTA who wonder, at any rate as long as Felgate is doing his other job. Henman, though, is committed to the partnership. "I can't understand how anyone could criticise David," he says. If it comes to it, though, Felgate may find himself with just one role - and Henman would undoubtedly come first. "I think it would be a tremendous mistake for Tim to go with someone else," Knight said. "Are you going to tell me that Nick Bollettieri or Bob Brett aren't great coaches because they weren't great players. It's about chemistry."

Henman and Felgate clearly have it. Felgate's wife, Jan, is Henman's agent at IMG. Between them they are virtually a second family for the man whose own family's tennis credentials are impressive enough. "It's very useful," Knight said. "Not much goes on in the tennis world that David and Jan don't know about."

The Felgates were glued to the players' box for Henman's matches last week, along with Henman's parents, Tony and Jane, and, for most of the time, Knight. In the midst of all the tumult surrounding them, they all knew, as no one else did, what it really meant.

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