Tennis: Henman rallies from base line

Andrew Longmore finds Britain's summer matinee idol at a loss for the first time
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WHEN Tim Henman talks about uncharted waters, he does not mean the deep-sea fishing trip which helped to calm his anger after an early departure from the Australian Open. No, Henman is talking about losing and the frustration of losing, not just once, but four weeks in a row. "I've had a tough time, but it's not the first time this has happened to a sportsman and I know I'm too good a player not to come out of it as long as I keep working hard."

The draw for the Guardian Direct Cup this week was another reminder of luck's fickleness in hard times. A first round against Richard Krajicek, the former Wimbledon champion and a formidable performer indoors, hardly provided a cosy homecoming for Britain's midsummer matinee idol. The week before last it was Boris Becker. After losing to Henman in the fourth round of Wimbledon, Krajicek vowed he would never call his son "Tim". "I hate that name," he said after a two-day dose of Henmania on Centre Court. Now here he is, a mile or two up the road, cast as the villain once more.

The irony will not be lost on Henman. February in Battersea Park is a world away from high summer in Wimbledon, but the British No 2 badly needs a shot of inspiration from somewhere before a chill wind turns into permanent residence on Skid Row. The sight of the big Dutchman, with his hefty serve and baggy shorts, will rekindle fond memories for Henman and his enthusiastic band of camp followers.

For the first time in his professional life, Henman is experiencing a loss of form for which there is no logical explanation. One moment he was beating Pat Rafter, the United States Open champion, in front of the Australian's home crowd and leading Karol Kucera 4-0 in the final on the way to defending his Sydney title. The next he was losing to the Czech and, in his own refreshingly honest appraisal, playing "the worst match of my life" in the opening round of the Australian Open. It could have been worse. Jerome Golmard, a big-serving Frenchman comfortably dispatched by Henman at Wimbledon, led by a set and 5-2 before the Englishman scrapped his way back into the match, finally losing 11-9 in the fifth set. Henman is still playing every point, wondering exactly what went wrong.

"I've learnt more about myself in the last month than I have done for a long time," he said. "It's not an enjoyable time, believe me. I hate losing at golf, cards, football, anything and at the moment I'm losing at my profession.

"In the past when I've struggled there has always been a reason. I broke my ankle, had an operation on my elbow. But this time I'm healthy, my fitness is good and my game is technically sound." So where is the problem?

"It's probably more mental. It's not that I'm not trying or not concentrating, it's just sometimes I don't have a clear picture of what I'm trying to do. Against Golmard, if I look back now, there were a hundred different things going through my mind: I'm a set down here, I'm a break down, it's windy, I'm making mistakes on the baseline, should I be going to the net more? When my game is on, it's like I'm playing on auto-pilot and I'm capable of beating anyone. But when I'm not playing great tennis, I have to be able to find a way of winning rather than waiting for something to come right."

Good straight talking. Always an articulate interviewee, Henman is anxious to explain himself, as if losing tennis matches is a terrible embarrassment not just the inevitable consequence of a precarious living. Henman has learnt how quickly one defeat can beget another, but press scrutiny has yet to turn to Henman himself; instead, criticism has fallen on his coach, David Felgate, whose lack of experience at the very top level presents an easy target. Watching Greg Rusedski vault into the world's top five after switching from Brian Teacher to Tony Pickard, the latest in a long line of changes, has only added to the pressure. Henman's well-documented will to win stops short at sacrificing a genuine friendship.

"There's definitely not going to be a change in my coach," he said. "I've been playing professionally for five and a half years and risen from 1,300 in the world to a high of 14 and I've had the same group of people around me. I'm aware that people have been questioning David more than me, but I'm pretty level-headed. When I've had my big highs my feet don't leave the ground and now that I'm at a low point, I'm not too despondent either. That's very important. There's been some articles written about me and what I should do, but I'm pretty selective who I listen to."

This is a critical week for Henman, not just because he is playing in his back garden in front of his own adoring fans nor because Krajicek prompts comparison with better times. Plenty of players have burst into the top 20, taken fright and retreated into mid-rank mediocrity. The danger is that unexpected defeats imperceptibly become acceptable.

Last week, Henman lost to Magnus Norman 7-5 6-3 in the first round in Antwerp, a run-of-the-mill defeat easily explained by a passing shot here, a couple of big serves there. Losing can become a habit just as easily as winning and the ranking system, which allows bad results to be cast away, feeds the habit.

Henman is a long way from despair yet. His shibboleths are sincere, his confidence seems unbroken and his rationale sound. His stated aim of reaching the top 10 by the end of the year remains intact as, refreshingly, has the approachable, innocent, air which hypnotises schoolgirls and matrons every June. "I'll come out of this a stronger person, but if I don't achieve top 10 this year, I know I'm going to achieve that and a lot more in the future." He clicks his fingers. "It could turn around like that. I'm perfectly capable of leaving here as the champion on Sunday night."