Tennis: `I remember thinking that I'd watched a number of British tennis players making names for themselves at Wimbledon by playing really well, but the sad fact was that they lost. I didn't want to be put in the same bracket'

Tim Henman does not want 1996 to be remembered as his best year. But, as he admits to Ian Stafford, it has been a remarkable one
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He may have reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals, the US Open fourth round, claimed a silver medal in the Olympic men's doubles tournament and last week reached the semi-finals of the Grand Slam Cup, but the moment when Tim Henman realised he had become famous occurred during a frustratingly slow drive along the motorway.

He had only been back a couple of days from his exploits in the States when Britain's latest, and to be fair, most promising champion-elect of world tennis for many, many years, found himself the centre of attention.

"You know how it is when you're stuck in traffic," the 22-year-old explains. "You start looking at other cars, and then at the people inside them. Well, there were two guys in an estate in the lane beside me, and I could tell they recognised me because they both had a wide-eyed look on their faces."

At this point Henman, far from being the robotic character that some would have you know, mimics the drivers, eyes staring wide ahead, and mouth gaping open. "I drove past them but, a few seconds later, came to a halt, and their car sidled up next to me again. This time the driver was staring at me, and the passenger was leaning right over the steering wheel to have a look.

"There was this brand new, shiny Audi in front of them, and I could only watch as the guys, still staring at me, went straight into the back of it. I drove off feeling a little guilty, and looking at the mess behind me in my mirror."

Now that is fame. Henman is laughing as he recalls the scene but, then again, the man from Oxford has a lot to laugh about following a year which has not only seen him rise from 99 to 25 in the world rankings - he is now back to 29 - but has also turned him into a household name. This, he views with some amazement.

"It has been unbelievable," he says. "I suppose it emphasises how much the public are crying out for a British tennis star. I mean, I've had a good year, but not when you compare it to the top guys...

"Suddenly, I'm being asked to do all sorts of off-court things. In Moscow, while I was playing out there recently, Tina Turner was in concert. Her manager happens to be English, and he sent a message asking if I would like to come and see the concert and meet her afterwards. Imagine that? I would have gone up to her in complete awe, and she would probably have turned round and said: `Who the f*** are you?' "

By now you may already have reached two conclusions: one, that Tim Henman is not quite the angelic figure some make him out to be and, two, that he has character in abundance which, in the mental jungle of tennis at the very top, can only stand him in good stead.

His tennis hero is Bjorn Borg. "That's while he was playing tennis," he adds. "Not necessarily what he's done since. I think he put so much into producing the ultimate package on court that it took its toll later. That's why it's important to have a life away from the game, both in terms of your sanity, and in terms of improving your game. When I can I like to switch off completely and do what any other young guy does living in London."

Such as sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll?

"Yeah," he laughs, warming to the theme. "You don't know what I get up to behind the scenes. Seriously, though, moving into my first place alone in London was obviously a big buzz, and there have been times when, sure, I've thought how it would be quite nice to be able to do things which being a top tennis player prevents you from doing. Hey, but I'm happy, believe me."

Our conversation took place before this week's Grand Slam Cup, but Henman's success in Munich only emphasised what an extraordinary 12 months it has been for him and his coach, David Felgate.

At the start of the year they would have settled for a top 50 ranking by now. His win over Petr Korda in the Australian Open, followed by a couple of semi-final appearances on the indoor European circuit, did no harm to his confidence, but it was that win over Yevgeny Kafelnikov at Wimbledon that proved the real catalyst.

"It was a big upset to beat the French Open champion, but before I played him there were a number of tell-tale signs that suggested that I could pull it off," Henman said. "I'd been playing well prior to the tournament, and I beat Mal Washington in Nottingham. Now I was going to play on Centre Court in front of a crowd all shouting for me. Kafelnikov had just won on clay in Paris, had a slight knee niggle, and it was the first round at Wimbledon, when everyone is feeling their way.

"When I was two sets up I knew I could win but, a break down in the fifth set, I was saying: `Shit, it doesn't seem that long ago that I was in complete control of this match.' This was a turning-point for me, not just in the match, but in my career.

"I remember thinking that I'd watched a number of British tennis players making names for themselves at Wimbledon by playing really well, but the sad fact was that they lost in those matches. I decided I didn't want to be put in the same bracket."

This sentiment is echoed when it comes to planning the next step, because Henman is the first to admit that he has won nothing so far. "I've got so much more to achieve," he says. "Being 25th in the world, and reaching a Wimbledon quarter-final, is not what I want to be remembered for. I don't want 1996 to be known as Tim Henman's year.

"What is exciting for me is that I can clearly identify areas where I know I can improve. I don't expect to be playing my best tennis for another three or four years, and it may well be that, so far, I've only scratched the surface."

One area he has already started work on, in preparation for what he envisages to be a hard 1997, is his strength. Although larger than he may come across to the public, he is no Boris Becker, and never will be. Nevertheless, he puts his failure to transform six semi-final appearances this year into places in finals down to this.

"David and I have looked hard at this problem, and we've come to the conclusion that there have been times when, having come through four rounds, I've got little left in the tank to face what are usually tougher opponents by the semis. I therefore need to get physically stronger, and to take my fitness level to an even higher level. The work starts now."

Odd as it may first seem, Henman would also like his rival, Greg Rusedski, to shoot up the rankings and challenge him for the No 1 spot in Britain. Why? Because by doing so Rusedski will also push Henman further up the ladder.

"Jeremy Bates always told me that he could have done with another British player pushing him. I often noticed how if Jeremy had gone through a bad spell and, say, dropped down to 120 in the world, and if another British player then reached 140, Jeremy would always play well for the next four weeks and end up back at 80.

"I think that Greg made a big difference to me when he came over last year to Britain. Without him, who knows where I'd be now. I might have sat back and settled for being the British No 1. There's no doubt about it, Greg's been vital to my development. Last year I had him in my sights. He was an obvious benchmark because he was in the top 50, and he had become a British player.

"This year the roles have been reversed, and it may not be a coincidence that Greg's played well recently to close the gap a bit between us in terms of ranking. I'm sure he has me in my sights. I very much hope so, and it's important to me that Greg does well because by doing so he'll push me up the rankings as well."

What, then, would Henman prefer? To be best in Britain, and 15th in the world, or be the No 2 behind Rusedski, but ranked eighth in the world? "Oh, there's doubt there," he says, as quick as a Rusedski serve. "The latter. I think that's been our problem in the past. In world terms the British have always been too narrow-minded.

"Look at Wimbledon, for example. We've got to get away from the idea that tennis is a four-week sport each year. I'm sure if I dropped down to 40th in the world in 1997, but reached another Wimbledon quarter-final, people here would say I'd had a good year. I may want to play my best tennis each year at Wimbledon, but I want to ensure that I'm playing well enough all year round to soon challenge for titles."

If he starts winning, of course, it could just be the green light for a long overdue tennis revolution in this country. "Now, more than ever before," he argues. "Even five years ago I don't think we had the structure in place to turn a promising youngster into a good professional, but now we have a definite pattern, right the way down from grass roots to where I am now. With more and more indoor tennis centres being built there's no reason why we couldn't become another Germany or Sweden."

He pauses. "Mind you, when I look at all the attention I've received this year, God only knows what it would be like if I ever won Wimbledon."

The thought causes him to pause for a moment. There is, however, no sign that he is intimidated by the prospect.

"I don't want to sound selfish," he replies. "But I have to play for myself and concentrate on what I have to do. The moment you start thinking about 15,000 watching you in the stands and willing me to win, you've got no chance."