Tennis: Henman making the right noises

Matt Tench on the challenge of clay for a rehabilitated British tennis No 1
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The Independent Online
Tim Henman is confident that his elbow is not about to supplant Cherie Blair's legs as a focus for national concern.

Britain's leading tennis player, whose spectacular start to the year prompted rash talk of a home win at Wimbledon, has been missing from the tour for nearly two months now, forced to the sidelines by an injury that has halted his rapid ascent of the world rankings.

However an operation to remove loose pieces of bone from Henman's right elbow six weeks ago appears to have been completely successful, and the 22-year-old said yesterday that he was relishing a return to tournament play next week in the Italian Open. "It's been very good," Henman said. "I've been playing for just over two weeks and now it's 100 per cent. I started off slowly, and was playing probably a little bit cautiously. But once you break down those psychological barriers it's been 100 per cent full out. For the first 10 days I didn't really do anything. Then I had an opportunity to put in a lot of time in the gym."

Henman suspected that the concentration on strength work had resulted in him putting on a few pounds, though he continues to have about as much surplus fat as Kate Moss.

Henman's rehabilitation has been supervised by Tim Newenham of the Lawn Tennis Association and has included special exercises for his right arm with which he intends to persevere. "It's a fairly important part of my anatomy," said the man who recently became a millionaire.

The Italian Open is on clay, a surface with which Henman is relatively unfamiliar. He missed that part of the season with a virus last year, and in 1995 was concentrating on improving on hard courts. A natural serve and volleyer, the slowest surface would appear not to suit him, but Henman remained upbeat.

"I really enjoy it. There is definitely an art to constructing rallies and taking opportunities to be aggressive. That is a definite game plan for me. I don't want to be staying at the back for 50, 60 shots. I'm going to have to be the one going forward and taking risks."

Might he not become frustrated? "It's a challenge. It's frustrating when you hit good shots and they keep coming back, but that's something you have to learn to deal with, to be patient."

All the same, Henman's coach, David Felgate, warned against exaggerated expectations next week, despite the fact that his man will be seeded. "I'll tell you, a lot of players, who aren't seeded, will be wanting to draw Tim Henman," Felgate said. "He hopes to prove them wrong, but they'll be thinking, `He hasn't played on the clay, he's been out injured, clay's not his best surface. If I'm going to knock off a seed why don't I start with that one?' "

The pair were gathered at Queen's Club in west London as the LTA, with a Peter Mandelson-like flair for publicity, marked the start of the British tennis season. Most of us were unaware that there was such a thing, but John Crowther, the LTA's chief executive, catching the mood of the times, said this was the dawn of a new era in British tennis. (He even pointed out that Tony Blair was a recreational player.)

Greg Rusedski was also there, and he and Henman coached dozens of youngsters as the LTA also launched their Junior Aces initiative to encourage those between five and 12 to take up the game.

Rusedski's year has almost mirrored Henman's: an encouraging start followed by a nagging injury, in his case to his wrist. He, too, is practising hard now and, though by his own estimate only 95 per cent ready, would also be playing in Rome.