Sport on TV: Henman and the immaculate perception

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The Independent Online
Wise man, Des Lynam. Been around the televised-sport game for quite a while, you know, as the snowy flecks in his make-the-girls-cry moustache testify. But he did not need to call on his years of experience to make a prediction on Sportsnight (BBC1) last week. "Now, the Wimbledon tennis championships are some 18 weeks away," he observed laconically. "But we can already forecast one thing that will happen - the media will go Tim Henman crazy. And we at the BBC will not be innocent bystanders, I guess."

Good call, Des. Far from standing by, the Beeb dispatched Ray Stubbs, their trusty Bill Beaumont lookalike, to shadow Henman as he jetted around the world promoting breakfast cereals and playing the odd tennis match. And it was not an innocent undertaking: the price of quality time with a star of Henman's magnitude is unlimited exposure for his sponsors. The only time Tim appeared without an Adidas shirt on was in a clip filmed when he was eight years old - the marketing boys must be kicking themselves for their lack of foresight.

Mind you, with recent advances in television technology there are things they can do about that. Don't be surprised if, when the clip is re-run (as it inevitably will be come the strawberry season) a little logo has been morphed on to Henman's youthful chest.

Two things were spooky about that little segment. One was that young Tim's interrogator was young Des, with fewer gravelly pebbles in the voice. The other was the calmness and articulacy of the boy-child. "Do you prefer short tennis to the real thing?" Uncle Des asked. "It's just as good but I don't prefer it," Timmy said. "I like proper tennis, it's just as nice." The fringe was identical, and so was the confident half-smile. Indeed, the only differences between Tim then and Tim now were that he'd put on a few feet and his voice has broken. And there are a few more pennies in his piggy bank.

The profile was long enough and thorough enough to have stood as a documentary in its own right - an indication, perhaps, of the way that BBC sports coverage may go in the future. Ray Stubbs may not be Jeremy Paxman, but he stuck to his task, and even contributed one or two sallies of plodding wit. "My father is a lawyer," Henman noted at one point, "and my brother is a lawyer." "And you are still in the courts," Oscar Stubbs chipped in, for all the world as if he hadn't spent hours thinking it up.

Setting aside the notion that we were seeing precisely what Henman's minders (Mr and Mrs Felgate) wanted us to see, some of the off-court relaxation scenes were quite fun. Shooting the cereal promotion in sunny South Africa, the star was not developing sufficient perspiration to look sexy. So an assistant sprinted up with a spray gun and gave him a proper drenching. The ad business, Tim? No sweat.

We also discovered that Henman is no mean juggler, a skill he would do well to pass on to his accountant, and that he is as prone as anyone to the forthright criticism of malevolent toddlers. Sitting on Tim's lap at dinner chez Felgate, in what Stubbs described as a "warm and comfortable environment", a toddler named Alice labelled Henman as "the bestest tennis player in the world". "Hooray," said her hero, clenching a fist. But then Alice changed her mind. "No, you're not," she declared, stabbing him with a piece of partially masticated toast. Only teasing - but good practice for dealing with the media at Wimbledon.

Back outdoors we saw Henman playing in goal for the LTA football team. He gets to wear the gloves because playing outfield would expose him to the danger of injury. But judging by the dive he made at the feet of an incoming forward he is too competitive to be safe anywhere. And it's just as well that the LTA were not playing Arsenal.

The image was squeaky-clean, of course, even down to a dignified name- check for his comfortably Sloaney girlfriend, Lucy, who looks so abidingly sensible that even female members of Tim's fan club approve of her. "I think it's good that he's got a girlfriend," Sara Vickery, of "Henmagic", said through gritted teeth. "Just so long as they don't get too chummy and it doesn't affect his tennis. Then I would get very cross." And that would be Hentragic.

There was just one moment that might merit further attention from investigative hacks: the revelation that when he was at school our man's nickname was "Timmy Test Tube". Was he a dab hand with Bunsen burner and retort, or is there a more sinister explanation for the sobriquet? I think we should be told - and once the tabloid hacks have located Henman's old chemistry teacher, no doubt we will be.

Enough cosy background. Time for the big questions. "Do I believe I can be No 1 in the world?" he mused. "Well, somebody has to be at that ranking." And the question that Stubbs left unasked: is Henman truly the secret love-child of Tony Blair? Well, they both look like psychotic hamsters but, crucially, the younger man doesn't make promises about what he will be doing in five years' time. Case closed.