Village life suits happy Henman

Tim Henman had a ball in Sydney four years ago. "I love all sports and it was wonderful to be at the Olympics," he said here yesterday. "I went to see a lot of the swimming and I watched three of the Great Britain hockey games. I went to the gymnastics once and I went to the 100 metres final. It was a fantastic experience."

Shame about the tennis. Henman, a silver medallist four years earlier in the doubles with Neil Broad, lost in straight sets in the first round of the Sydney singles to Karol Kucera. "When I reflect on the way that I played it wasn't one of my best performances," he said. "I ended up watching too much. I got carried away because everything was so close and easy. I forgot that I was there to compete."

Henman, the fourth seed here in an outstanding men's field, begins his third Olympic campaign this evening against Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic. His recent back problems have eased, he likes the fast Wilson balls and the medium-paced courts at the splendid new tennis centre, and he says he is hitting the ball well. And while he promises not to spend as much time in the stands as he did in Sydney, Henman is already enjoying the Olympic experience.

The British Olympic Association wanted all competitors in action within the subsequent 48 hours to miss Friday night's opening ceremony, but Henman was having none of that. Similarly, he did not countenance the idea of joining some of the superstars in their smart Athens hotels. Henman is more than happy in the apartment he shares in the athletes' village with Gary Smith, a trampolinist, and Nate Ackerman, a wrestler.

"We got back from the opening ceremony at half past one last night and I had to be out by 8.30 in the morning to go and practise, but when we got back we sat there for an hour talking about wrestling," he said. "It was really interesting, Nate tried out some holds on Gary, but thankfully not on me.

"It's a bit of an insult that some people show surprise that I'm staying in the village. Why would I want to go and stay in a hotel? I want to be part of the team. You can't appreciate what it's like being in the village with 10,000 athletes until you've experienced it. If you see someone in the dining room with a GB outfit you sit down and talk to them. You meet so many interesting people."

While the women's tournament is missing some big names - Justine Henin-Hardenne returns after illness and Martina Navratilova plays in the doubles, but Maria Sharapova, Jennifer Capriati, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters are all absent - the men's draw is formidable. Henman is scheduled to meet Xavier Malisse, Nicolas Kiefer, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick, while the Wimbledon champion Roger Federer heads the other half of the draw.

"The media sometimes make a big point about professional players not wanting to be a part of the Olympics, but Lleyton Hewitt is the only one of the top men's players not here," Henman said. "I wouldn't want to belittle the Grand Slams and I know they have a fantastic history, but there are four of those every year and the Olympics comes round just once every four years."

Henman acknowledges that what the Olympic tournament lacks is tradition, the sport having been absent from the Games after 1924 until its return at Seoul in 1988. However, the British No 1 was interested to hear yesterday that the first tennis tournament of the modern Olympics was won by a student from Henman's home city of Oxford.

John Pius Boland, an Irishman studying at Christ's College, travelled to Athens in 1896 as a spectator but was persuaded to enter the tournament on the eve of the Games by a Greek whom he had met at dinner the previous night, Dionysios Kasdaglis.

Boland played in leather-soled shoes with heels, but won his four matches to secure the gold medal. He nearly withdrew from the final because his opponent was Kasdaglis, the man who had got him into the tournament in the first place. However, Boland decided that it would not be right to forfeit a match "of an international character" and went on to win 6-2, 6-2.

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