Tennis: Henman has the hunger

Wimbledon 97: Ian Tasker talks to the British No 1 who is ready for the most important two weeks of his year

You've got to hand it to Tim Henman. After a year in which he has got to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, won a silver medal at the Olympic Games, made the semi-finals of the Grand Slam Cup, won his first ATP Tour title and reached a high of 14 in the world, he's done the decent British thing - he has started playing like a drain.

Since his much publicised elbow operation in March, the 22 year old British No 1 has managed to beat only an ailing Spaniard, who retired injured in Rome, his friend Andrew Richardson (twice) and a handful of relative nobodys in Nottingham.

This, of course, is obviously a canny and calculated plan to dampen down the national expectation that is bound to be heaped upon him as the Wimbledon fortnight begins. Very clever indeed and heaven help his friend and rival Greg Rusedski, the British No 2 who is making the unforgivable mistake of conspicuously being in top form, having won at Nottingham and narrowly lost his semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic at Queen's. He is even talking confidently about wanting to win the damn thing.

Rusedski the big serving, ever smiling former Canadian, is perhaps trying too hard to underline his allegiance to the Union Jack and despite his protestations of support for Arsenal and the England cricket team he remains, bless him, as convincingly English as Niagara Falls.

Henman, from an archetypal British upper middle class tennis background, understands better than most that as far as our sporting heroes are concerned we just love to talk them up and then shout them back down again - so, through his recent run of poor form, he's got his shouting in first.

Success and failure, are, however, relative terms as far as Britain and tennis is concerned. There have still been more British men's singles champions at Wimbledon than any other nationality but - and you've read this every year for half a century - none since Fred Perry in 1936. In recent years success has been gauged by reaching the first Wednesday with more than one player (Jeremy Bates) left in the draw. Henman's terrific run to the last eight last year was as glorious as it was overdue. So what would represent a success this time around for Henman, who kicks off against Canada's Daniel Nestor in the first round?

"If I got to the quarter-final and lost again it would still be a success," Henman said. "If you look at my ranking [currently 20th] there are obviously a lot of good players around. I'm only seeded to make the last 16 so a quarter-final would be one round ahead of that, theoretically. But having said that I believe I have the capability to have another good run and go even further.

"Wimbledon is the highlight of every year and it always will be. If I could choose to play my best tennis for two weeks of the year it would definitely be for those two weeks. It's the event I look forward to most. I don't think you can have it any better. Playing at home on a surface I have had good results on, with the crowd right behind you - it's very special."

Henman is a great one for setting himself targets and can boast an impressive record of achievements. "At the end of 1995 I broke into the top 100 and would have been British No 1 if Greg had not joined us that year," he said. "It was a good thing that he was ranked in the top 50 as it gave me an immediate goal to work for. Then, this year, I wanted to break into the top 20 and win my first title - and I did both in first two weeks."

He is understandably reluctant to reveal his ultimate aims, wary perhaps of having it thrown back in his face, but the suspicion is that he will not be satisfied until he is No 1 in the world and Wimbledon champion - and the two do not always go hand in hand. Look at Ivan Lendl for example. No 1 in the world for years on end but never a winner on the lawns of South West 19 or Pat Cash, a splendid winner a decade ago but never right up there in the rankings.

"If I could win one tournament in my career it would definitely be Wimbledon," Henman said. "Its the pinnacle, the ultimate, but having said that, to have a career like someone like Lendl, who dominated the sport, would be very special. Which would I want to be? The No 1 player in the world or somebody whose won Wimbledon?" A reflective pause then "Either will do. Beggars can't be choosers."

The choice of becoming a tennis player in the first place was made for Henman when, as a seven year old in 1981, he first visited the Centre Court and watched his earliest tennis hero, Bjorn Borg. "I think that's when I pretty much decided that that's what I wanted to do," Henman said. "It struck me then what an amazing place it was. Then to be able to play on Centre Court last year was something very special and to play as well as I did was obviously a big bonus."

It must not be forgotten, however, that Henman almost lived up to Britain's reputation for producing gallant, glorious losers in the Andrew Castle/Chris Bailey mould (five set losers against, respectively, Mats Wilander and Goran Ivanisevic). Two sets to love up against the recently crowned French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Henman was a hero in waiting. Two match points down and he was staring into an all too familiar abyss. The two aces he conjured up at that vital moment catapulted him on to the world stage and marked him down for ever as a very untypical Brit.

It is interesting that the match Henman most remembers from his days watching the championships on TV is not a final ("I would like to say the Borg v McEnroe game but I don't really remember it") but the Connors v Pernfors clash which saw the veteran American fight back to win after trailing 1-6, 1-6, 1-4 ("a pretty amazing match").

If Henman has taken to heart Connors' never say die approach he has been more obviously influenced, in both style and demeanour, by another former Wimbledon champion, Stefan Edberg. "I've practised with him at Queen's for nearly five years, since I was 17," Henman said.

"I haven't modelled myself on him but I think it's been pretty easy to see as I've developed that it's been in a similar style of play, so I've been able to learn a great deal from him."

It is somewhat ironic then that Henman, a genuine good guy should hold the unenviable record of being the first player ever to be defaulted from the Championships - something not even John McEnroe managed. Henman's moment of infamy came in 1995 when, playing in the doubles, he struck a ball in anger and accidentally hit a ball girl. "I can say wholeheartedly that's the most embarrassing moment I've had on a tennis court," he said, "and one that I don't want to repeat."

Henman remains impressively unaffected by his new found fame and beneath the image of a determined, mild mannered, polite and friendly tennis player lurks the reality of a fiercely determined, mild mannered, polite, friendly, young man. Aware of the pressures of his fame - "you have to get used to it and not get distracted from the most important thing which is your tennis" - he is also aware of the tremendous benefits of his millionaire status.

"If there is a downside to all of it," he said, and you suspect for Henman there isn't, "its that we travel too much and I'd like more of an off season, but if I am complaining about travelling too much and seeing too many countries its not a bad situation to be in."

On Friday, Christie's auctioned off some of Fred Perry's mementoes, including his racket. Although Henman was not tempted to snap it up for his own wall, the true depth of his ambition was perhaps revealed when he mused: "I hope one day as many people will be as interested in my rackets as they are in Fred Perry's."

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