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."

News
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Life and Style
fashionOne man takes the hipster trend to the next level
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'