Tennis is coming home
Tim Henman's achievement in becoming the first Briton since Roger Taylor in 1973 to reach a Wimbledon quarter-final has catapulted the 21-year- old from Oxford into the role of national sporting hero recently relinquished by David Seaman and Alan Shearer.
The flags of St George, temporarily lowered after Euro 96 defeat at Wembley, have been hoisted proudly over the All England Club this week. With Todd Martin the only seed left standing in his way it is no longer fanciful to talk of Henman going one better than the footballers and actually reaching the final. Unlikely perhaps but not outrageously so. Only last year bookmakers were offering better odds on Martians landing on earth than a British winner at Wimbledon
But the question has to be asked amid all the euphoria, just how good is he? He appears to have all the shots, solid on both wings, an improving serve and a calm head on young shoulders. His two aces to save match points against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round and the two tie-breaks against Magnus Gustafsson yesterday mark him out as a definitely un-British non- choker. More importantly, perhaps, his non-demonstrative salute of victory yesterday suggested unfinished business.
Henman certainly has Wimbledon in his blood. His grandfather reached the third round in 1948, his great-grandmother was the first to serve overarm and his grandmother was the last to serve underarm. Henman himself, of course, was also the first to be disqualified from Wimbledon after accidentally hitting a ball-girl last year.
Coached by David Felgate, Henman began playing at the age of three (four years before the world No 1 Pete Sampras first picked up a racket) and turned pro in 1993. His steady rise up the rankings (434 in 1993, 161 in 1994, 99 in 1995 and into the top 50 after his exploits at Wimbledon) has, for the last year, been continued almost by stealth as the rest of British tennis eagerly embraced the more extrovert Canadian import, Greg Rusedski. He will no longer have that protection. Greg who?
Before we all get too carried away though, remember that Henman is already four years older than Boris Becker was when he won his first Wimbledon in 1985 and by the time Bjorn Borg was 21 he had won two Wimbledons and two French Opens. Remember, too, that a similarly unheralded and unseeded Chris Lewis reached the semi-finals in 1985 and who remembers what happened to the man from New Zealand after that?
And yet, and yet... Henman has been compared to Sampras - in style if not yet in substance - has won the respect of his fellow professionals and, as we are constantly being told, British players mature later, which should mean that there is still room for improvement.
But is Henman destined to be another Jeremy Bates or John Lloyd (all the shots, nice touch but lacking the real killer instinct) or, better than that, another Roger Taylor (killer instinct, the only man to beat both Laver and Borg at Wimbledon but still not quite top notch), or even, dare we hope, another Fred Perry (the real thing)?
It is a reassuring statistic that more British men have won the men's singles title at Wimbledon than any other nationality, (mostly due to the fact that overseas players did not play in the early days) but a constantly depressing one that the last British triumph was Perry's in 1936.
If Euro 96 was supposed to rid us of 30 years of hurt on the football pitch perhaps Henman could overturn 60 years of grief on the tennis court. And if you are looking for omens, Perry's 1936 victim was a German, Gottfried von Cramm. What price Henman v Michael Stich on Sunday? Fanciful? It would be a miracle this time round, but given time he might, just might, make it happen in the future.