Tennis: Henman the sorceror's apprentice

Wimbledon 99: British No 1 wisely taking free lessons from Master and is well placed to be Sampras's successor
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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN has been criticised for the company he keeps, some American ne'er-do-well by the name of Pete Sampras who pretends to be his friend, but always has to win whenever they play.

Of all the guff spoken and written about Wimbledon during the past fortnight, the suggestion that Henman and Sampras should be separated like mischievous schoolboys takes some beating. They are already a class apart, and Henman is wise to take free lessons from The Master when and wherever he can.

Some of the key points in tennis are played in the mind, so if the space between Henman's ears is to be invaded, it may as well be by the best. The 24-year-old from Oxfordshire and Sampras are kindred spirits, similar in style and approach.

The closer Henman comes to emulating the most prolific Wimbledon men's singles champion of the century, the less harm in being led up the garden path, or along the service lines, in the meantime.

Henman loves tennis, both its traditional values and current challenges, and if his grass-court game indicates that he may be a natural successor to Sampras, there should be thanksgiving that he is the sorcerer's apprentice.

Not that Henman spends every spare hour playing tennis and golf with Sampras. Along the way to losing consecutive Wimbledon semi-finals to the 27-year-old champion, the British No 1 has practised with a variety of hitting partners, from Sweden's Stefan Edberg, the elegant serve-volleyer, to Marcelo Rios, the sullen Chilean groundstroker.

Henman broke Sampras's serve twice in winning the opening set of last Saturday's semi-final, but was unable to convert any of several opportunities, chiefly because Sampras served so well when danger threatened.

Andre Agassi, the best returner of serve of his generation, extended his French Open-winning form from the slow clay courts of Paris to Wimbledon's lawns. But, well though Agassi played in Sunday's final, the Las Vegan was unable to break Sampras's serve.

Whenever Henman fails to measure up to increasing expectation, doubts tend to be raised about his fortitude under fire. Henman's Davis Cup performance against the American Todd Martin, and his successful battle of wills over five sets against Jim Courier in the fourth round at Wimbledon last week, when the Briton saved three match points, testified to more than just a pretty game on adidas commercials.

As for Greg Rusedski, the British No 2 left Wimbledon with a sore thigh muscle and an aching heart, having been unable to take his formidable serve beyond the fourth round. Rusedski was defeated by Australia's Mark Philippoussis, whose booming deliveries threatened to subdue Sampras in the quarter-finals until a knee injury intervened.

Behind the fixed smile, Rusedski was hurt that another campaign on the lawns had come to grief. He had been on course to meet Sampras in the quarter-finals, a contest that would have been given an extra edge since Rusedski defeated the American in the final of the Paris Indoor ATP Tour event last November.

In common with Henman, Rusedski will put Wimbledon behind him and try to improve his ranking on the concrete courts of America in preparation for the US Open, which starts on 30 August. On top of which, British supporters are looking forward to another gathering at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, in September, for a Davis Cup tie against South Africa that holds the key to Britain's destiny in the 16-strong World Group.

Sampras will rest before sampling America's reaction to his Fourth of July victory against Agassi when he returns to the Davis Cup team, hatchets buried, for the centenary tie against Australia in Boston.

Harsh though the criticism of his temporary abandonment of the Davis Cup has been, Sampras will consider that a sixth Wimbledon singles title, and 12th Grand Slam singles title, equalling Roy Emerson's record, has vindicated his decision.

The concluding Wimbledon championships of the century, like so many in the past, featured a number of hails and farewells. Ten years ago, after the previous Sunday punch of the women's and men's singles finals on the same day, Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, the pride of Germany, displayed the trophies together.

Last week, Graf and Becker competed on the lawns for the last time. They left empty-handed, but treasure chests of fond memories and goodwill followed in their wake.

An angry John McEnroe declared that he would stick to commentating, except for his regular participation on the ATP Senior Tour, after Graf abruptly ended their Wimbledon mixed-double partnership in order to rest a dodgy thigh muscle in the hope of winning an eighth singles title.

"It was like being punched in the stomach," McEnroe said. He cannot be serious. Surely the old warrior would have taken the same decision as Graf in similar circumstances.

While Wimbledon indulged in its party piece of running the covers on and off the courts, Martina Hingis spent the second week away from the rain in the sunshine of Cyprus with her boyfriend, the Swiss player Ivo Heuberger. Hingis, the 1997 champion, is now in Florida, preparing for the American hard court season.

Hingis's first-round defeat by the 16-year-old Australian Jelena Dokic triggered a wave of publicity over teenaged players and their parents.

There was Hingis and mum (her coach, Melanie Molitor), who decided to go their separate ways; Dokic and her dad, Damir, who was able to cheer his daughter through to the semi-finals having overcome the embarrassment of being ejected from a tournament in Birmingham because of unruly behaviour; Alexandra Stevenson and mum, Samantha, who made allegations concerning lesbianism and racism on the women's Tour; and Stevenson and dad, who let it be known that he is none other than Julius Erving II, "Dr J" of basketball fame.

On the positive side, the women's game saw the blooming of several new starlets, including Dokic and Stevenson, and Mirjana Lucic, who appears to have put her parental difficulties behind her since moving from Croatia to the United States.

Lindsay Davenport, charmingly, thanked everybody who came to mind after starting a day of American celebrations by defeating Graf in the final, having hastily arranged to have a new dress delivered in the hope that she would be among the guests of honour at the Wimbledon Champions' Dinner at the Savoy.

John Curry marked the end of his 10 years as the All England Club's chairman by complimenting the players for the way they put up with the weather and thanking the Club's top seeds for all seasons, Alan Mills, the referee, and Eddie Seaward, the head groundsman.

Sampras said it was "pretty cool" to have won the title six times. The splendid trophy stood before him, inscribed with the words: "The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Championship of the World". Sampras used a two-handed backhand until his early mentor, Pete Fischer, persuaded him to change to the classical one-handed style.

As Sampras spoke, the words of Hingis came to mind when she remarked two years ago how disappointed she was to discover that the traditional champions' dance had been discontinued. Otherwise, Sampras would have tripped the light fantastic with Steffi Graf (1993 and 1995), Conchita Martinez (1994), Martina Hingis (1997), Jana Novotna (1998) and Lindsay Davenport (1999). More partners than Fred Astaire.

WIMBLEDON CHAMPIONS 1999

Men's singles

P Sampras (US)

Women's singles

L Davenport (US)

Men's doubles

M Bhupathi & L Paes (India)

Women's doubles

L Davenport & C Moriaru (US)

Mixed doubles

L Paes (India) & L Raymond (US)

Boys' singles

J Melzer (Aut)

Boys' doubles

G Coria & D Nalbandian (Arg)

Girls' singles

I Tulyaganova (Uzb)

Girls' doubles

D Bedanova (Cz Rep) & M Salerni (Arg)

Men's 45 & over doubles

B Gottfried & T Gullikson (US)

Men's 35 & over doubles

K Flach & R Suguso (US)

Women's 35 & over doubles

E Smylie & W Turnbull (Aus)

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