Tennis: Cool-hand Henman

Britain's tennis hero is coping remarkably well with his celebrity status. Simon O'Hagan talked to him
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The Independent Online
Tim Henman walks through the door with a pack of sandwiches in his hand. Busy man. Meals on the run. But no. The sandwiches are not for him. They're for one of the staff at the Lawn Tennis Association's international training centre, a sleek, modern facility in the grounds of Queen's Club in west London, which is home to Henman and the other leading British players when they are not away at tournaments.

One hears a lot about the unaffectedness of the new, 22-year-old star of British tennis - indeed, its first real star of the modern era - and on this overcast afternoon last week the evidence is right before one's eyes as Henman, who has just eaten in the Queen's Club canteen across the way, returns in a chattering group and brings back lunch for someone else. Why shouldn't he, you might say. But there is still something about the way Henman blends into this environment, his easy manner and lack of self-importance that suggests that keeping his feet on the ground simply isn't an issue for the world's 17th best tennis player.

The handshake is firm, the greeting warm. He wants to know how things are with you. The outside world is a closed book to a lot of sportsmen, lives other than their own hard to conceive of or never thought about at all. That doesn't seem to be the case with Henman. If you met him without knowing what he did, you might think he was a trainee solicitor (his father's profession, which he probably would have gone into himself had it not been for tennis) or perhaps beginning a career in the City. A highly personable young man, anyway - outgoing, straightforward, and with a steady gaze that hints at a deep-seated confidence about his place in the world.

But how could anyone not know who Tim Henman was? Since his heroics in reaching the quarter-finals at last year's Wimbledon his celebrity has extended way beyond the boundaries of the tennis court. He was a contender for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Award and had a starring role on the night when he lost to Frank Bruno in a penalty shoot-out. He was the subject of a rather bland television documentary on Channel 4, which got a repeat within a month of its first broadcast. He's turned up in a high-grade advert for breakfast cereal.

And in a winter in which - until last week at any rate - England's cricketers have supplied regular doses of depression from far-flung corners of the globe, Henman's run of success in early January, when he reached his first final, in Doha, won his first title, in Sydney, shot to No 14 in the world rankings, and reached the third round of the Australian Open, gave us some sports news worth waking up to and kept the front pages in feel-good pictures for days on end.

Henman has spent the last three weeks at home in London before returning to action this week in Dubai. He hasn't been hitting tennis balls so much as doing endurance work - five-mile runs along the river which he hopes will help him stay the distance at tournaments. But to begin with he "switched off" for a few days and reacquainted himself with his new girlfriend, Lucy Heald, 24, who works on the television production side of Henman's agents, the International Management Group. They got together in early December, but the romance wasn't public knowledge until after he had returned from Australia, and now, rather like a minor royal, Henman is faced with the prospect of having to share the relationship with the outside world - to an extent at least.

"You have to accept that," he says, not too grudgingly, as he leans back on a sofa in an office at the training centre, his hands behind his head. "There's nothing I can do about it. With the interest I've had on the court there's bound to be interest in me off it. I probably don't like that aspect so much but there's nothing I can do about it so I might as well learn to live with it as quickly as possible. I think the main thing is to stay relaxed about it all and retain your sense of humour."

Henman admits, though, that some of the attention is flattering - strangers recognising him in the street and the congratulations he receives all the time. It's still relatively new to him and he enjoys it. "I'm not the sort of person to get carried away with it, but it's good that so many people are interested and pleased for what I'm doing."

Keeping his commitments within limits has become essential. Sponsorship opportunities and requests for interviews and appearances pour in, and the roughly two per cent that are taken up are done so with a careful eye on the Henman image, which can be characterised as Home Counties but not Sloaney, clean-living but not unsexy. He has three main sponsors - Adidas, whose kit he wears; Slazenger, whose rackets he uses; and Midland Bank. These deals, plus advertising, could earn him up to pounds 1m this year, on top of what he makes on the court. Last year he won $853,247, or about pounds 537,000.

"There's a lot of money," he says, a little embarrassed. "But it's never been an incentive. It's never been a reason why I play the game. I'm talking from a privileged position, of course. I'd much rather have the money than not have it. But like the other things, it's something you probably pay less and less attention to it. I suppose I should be taking more advantage."

He is a little coy about what he might spend his money on. In purely financial terms, he has quickly outgrown his flat in Chiswick and his Peugeot 306 but he won't be drawn on whether either of them will soon be traded up. "You'll have to keep a look out for me to see what I'm driving," he says.

Extravagance is quite alien to the Henman ethos. The house in the Oxfordshire village where he grew up may have had a court in the back garden, but his parents, Tony and Jane, are impeccably discreet, scrupulous in their maintenance of a low profile throughout their son's rise to fame and fortune.

There is a paradox here. Received wisdom long had it that British tennis's problem was its middle-classness. It needed to reach out to the masses if it was to unearth someone with the hunger and the drive to reach the very top. Yet when a champion finally came along he wasn't an inner-city kid with attitude and his baseball cap on the wrong way round but the sort of civilised young man who gives public schools a good name.

So how come Henman has it in him to seize centre stage when so many other by no means untalented British players have remained in the wings? "It's a mental thing," he says. "Where I get it from I don't know. I'm just grateful that I've got it. I suppose from an early age I always knew this was what I wanted to do. It's been a dream for such a long time. And having dreamt about it for so long I realise that I want to achieve it. I'm sure that at the end of my career I'll be able to look back and say I fulfilled my potential. That's important. I would hate to have to say that there were times when I wasn't fully committed."

Henman's attitude to setbacks is also instructive. After all, when the end came at the Australian Open, beaten in straight sets by Michael Chang, it wasn't exactly glorious even though the result accorded with the rankings. "I played badly and that was that. That's going to happen sometimes, and I won't look into it any more than that. As I saw it, that was my 13th match in three weeks and the other 12 were very good."

The concept of what might have been does not figure with Henman either. Take another example from Australia: in the Sydney final, he thrashed his Spanish opponent, Carlos Moya, 6-3 6-1. Moya then went to Melbourne, beat Boris Becker in the first round, beat Chang after Chang had beaten Henman, and only lost when he came up against Pete Sampras in the final. You could argue, therefore, that it should have been Henman who went all the way. Not Henman, though.

"A lot of people thought Moya had a chance against Becker. It was Becker's first match of the year and obviously Moya had played well up until the final in Sydney. After that it was just a matter of confidence. I thought it showed the depth in men's tennis."

Henman doesn't make excuses, and he doesn't dwell on failure. "What I like about tennis is it's an individual sport and everything is down to you, from how you perform in matches to how much training you put in." But he's a team man as well.

Playing football is his other great love. That's what he says he's done when asked how he's spent his spare time recently. Like many sportsmen, his way of relaxing is not to escape from sport but to play a different one. The players and coaches at the training centre have a team which turns out regularly and whose fortunes seem to be etched into Henman's mind as clearly as the sequence of scores in a tie-break.

He starts to go through their matches. "We played the LTA admin on Monday night. We beat them 7-1. We played IMG/TWI and beat them 3-0. We played the Daily Mail. I think we beat them 7-1 as well. We played Adidas and drew 4-4. We played some of the younger guys from here and drew 2-2 and beat them on penalties." And so it goes on. The high point was evidently a match at Leatherhead's ground, fixed thanks to the local influence of Jeremy Bates.

Henman has reason to be proud of most of those performances. He's the goalkeeper. He plays there as a safeguard against injuring an ankle he broke very badly three and a half years ago. But he appreciates the individual nature of the role too. "Now you mention it, I suppose they are connected." And he thinks for a moment and smiles.