Tennis: Learning curve becomes harder for Henman

Tim Henman's fall from grace is reviving the `What's wrong with British tennis?' era. John Roberts thinks this is an over-reaction
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TIM HENMAN has taken one match at a time in his last four tournaments, having failed to advance to a second match. The identity of the British No 2's next opponent will be revealed shortly after 5 pm today, unless the promoters decide that a masked man would be appropriate, when Alan Mills, the Wimbledon referee, supervises the draw for next week's Guardian Direct Cup, an ATP Tour event to be staged in a temporary arena in Battersea Park.

It will be Henman's first competitive appearance in his home country since November, when he won the National Championship at Telford for a third consecutive year. At Wimbledon in July, Henman reached his second successive quarter-final, only to be given a lesson by 1991 champion Michael Stich, who was in the process of marking his retirement.

After Battersea, Henman's next important British engagement is with Greg Rusedski for the Davis Cup tie against Ukraine at Newcastle from 3 to 5 April. The winners advance to the qualifying round for a place in the 16-strong World Group on 25 to 27 September.

Having finished 1997 in possession of two ATP Tour singles titles and a world ranking of No 17, Henman made an encouraging start to the year with a victory against Australia's Pat Rafter, the United States Open champion and world No 2, in advancing to the Sydney final in defence of his inaugural title.

Losing in the Sydney final against the talented Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, was disappointing but bearable. Since then, however, Henman appears to have become the Robbie Fowler of tennis.

Shaken by a first-round defeat at the Australian Open by Jerome Golmard, a French qualifier, the 23-year-old Henman has experienced a frustrating odyssey in search of form, losing successive opening round matches against Germany's Rainer Schuttler, in Croatia, the semi-retired Boris Becker, in Dubai, and Sweden's Magnus Norman in Antwerp, where Henman was a finalist last year. The loss of points in Belgium will cost him a place in the top 20.

Recalling the "What's wrong with British tennis?" era, when home players rarely even qualified for mainstream tour events, it is mildly amusing to sense the media's growing exasperation with Henman and his coach, David Felgate. Valid or not, the criticism is a measure of the increased expectation in the British game in the three years since Rusedksi arrived from Canada and Henman began to confirm his potential.

Henman's profile has become too high for him to expect breathing space, but at least the drain on his ranking points is about to cease for a couple of months, the period he was missing from the tour last year following surgery to an elbow.

The draining of his confidence is another matter. Lapses in concentration, particularly during service games, caused the worrying run of results and, to state the obvious, his faith in his game will only be restored by a sequence of victories.

For this to happen, dedicated training and attention to strategy on the practice court has to be translated into action under pressure during matches, whether or not the opponent's rank and reputation enhances motivation.

After his defeat by Becker, Henman expressed the view that a player probably learns more from losing matches than by winning them, and added: "I'll keep learning, not just this week, but for a hell of a lot of years to come."

Coaching is not an exact science, as Felgate himself has pointed out. The LTA's former manager of men's international training has a close association with Henman, bordering on that of an older brother. He is both coach and confidant. Moreover, his wife, Jan, is Henman's agent on behalf of Mark McCormack's International Management Group.

Those who would seek to part Henman and Felgate might possibly underestimate the strength of the bond between them.