Tennis: Berry reveals Perry's pointer for Henman

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Topspin - Ups and Downs

in Big-Time Tennis

by Eliot Berry (Henry Holt & Co, pounds 22.99)

Tim Henman's rise to prominence has raised expectations and eyebrows. Fascinated foreigners gawp at the young man from Oxford as if he were a relic from the Natural History Museum - a Britannic Tennisaurus, whatever next? Eliot Berry, an American, is probably composing the final paragraph of a treatise on the phenomenon right now.

Berry's love for tennis per se is evident in his writing. Had his own playing career advanced beyond New York State junior titles for singles and doubles, he would still endeavour to spare as much of his time as possible observing and interviewing.

In his latest book, which is centred on the experiences of three players - the great Stefan Edberg, kick-serving towards the twilight, Jonathan Stark, an American journeyman in mid-career, and Ania Bleszynski, a Polish- American junior with a penchant for studying science - the author leaves himself abundant scope for digression.

"The English have never poured cement or rubber over their lawns," Berry marvels. "They cling to their grass and gardens perhaps more deeply than to their monarchy."

Berry's favourite sign in England is at Wimbledon. "It says WARNING - THE GENTLEMEN STANDING IN FRONT OF THE TEA STAND MAY BE TICKET TOUTS. To a New Yorker that's pastoral."

The late Fred Perry plays an affectionate cameo role in the text, a reminder that there was indeed tennis life in Britain before Henman, and only 60 years before at that.

"There was this rivalry thing between you and Bunny Austin at that time-

"There was never any rivalry between myself and Bunny Austen," snapped Perry imperiously, raising his voice slightly, as if I had compared Noel Coward to Joseph Conrad. "No. When we started on the English Davis Cup team, Austin was number one, and I got better and better and won Grand Slam tournaments, so I became number one."

Berry pulled out a copy of the 12 September, 1936, edition of Newsweek, the cover of which carried a photograph of Fred Perry hitting an overhead. Inside was an article with photographs of Kay Stammers, a leading British player of the day, and the great American Bill Tilden. "As he saw himself on the cover and his old friends pictured in their youth inside the magazine Fred Perry's voice changed entirely, as if I had brought him back to his real friends, many of whom were dead now."

Fred Perry's reminiscences at the age of 85 would seem to have little to do with young Henman. Except, as Perry pointed out, "The whole key to it in any era, in any job, is if you really enjoy something, you are going to do it better than the next person. If you lose that joy, well, the sport or the job is not for you."

At this moment it is difficult to imagine anybody enjoying what they do more than Henman. Not even Eliot Berry.