Tennis: Marriage focuses Henman's mission
On Saturday Britain's No 1 tennis player will no longer be a single man, but his other great quest is unfulfilled.
Tuesday 07 December 1999
Nor is it true that the reception will be held on an airship that will fly north before circling over the Centre Court at Wimbledon, or that all the guests have been requested to dress in white, although you sense that Britain's No 1 tennis player would not be surprised to open his paper and read it sometime in the next few days.
"I think the situation is getting worse and worse," he said yesterday as he held court at the HSBC British Schools Tennis Team competition at Redbridge Sports Centre. "I think someone needs to draw a line somewhere. It feels like people are sitting there and dreaming things up. There's normally an element of truth in most stories, even if it gets elaborated upon. But Fatboy Slim - that couldn't be further from the truth." Henman is peeved. Perhaps even cross. But he is not angry. He is not raging. He is not going to let it get to him, because that is his way.
Hello and OK magazines are two other things he is not going to let get to him, or his marriage, despite the fact that both have offered large amounts in recent months to witness Henman tying the knot just a week after his domestic colleague and rival Greg Rusedski did so - also with Lucy.
Not that Lucy. Another Lucy.
"We've been offered all sorts of money," Henman said. "But it's the last thing I'd want, not for any sum in the world. Our wedding is a private, family affair. Sure, it's a coincidence about Greg's wedding - but we don't really have too many options of when we can get married, because we compete from January to November." At 25, Henman has already had three or four years to get used to the idea of being public property, and he accepts that the kind of speculation his impending nuptials has provoked in certain quarters is unavoidable. Just as he accepts that his raison d'etre, as far as most British tennis followers are concerned, is to win Wimbledon.
"It comes with the territory, 100 per cent. You can have your best year ever leading up to Wimbledon, win three or four tournaments, and then have a bad day at the office, and everyone would say: `He's hopeless now, he finished.' Whereas you could play terribly in the six months leading up to Wimbledon and get a good draw and get through to whatever, and everyone would say: `Well, this is the next - whoever.'" The name that Henman would most like to see in the `whoever' slot is that of Fred Perry, the last Brit to win Wimbledon, 63 years ago. "I would do anything to win Wimbledon," he says. Habitually. And looking into that intense, still schoolboyish face, you don't doubt it. He has, after all, offered ample evidence in recent years to show that this is the Brit who doesn't bend in the middle when the going gets tough.
He ascribes a large part of his mental toughness to the fact that he grew up in Oxford trying to compete with two elder brothers - Michael, now a lawyer, and Richard, now an artist. "We used to play sport all day and every day - football, rugby, cricket, hockey, squash - and for me to keep up with them was serious competition." Naturally enough, he has his lines prepared when he is asked to consider his prospects of winning the domestic title which has so far eluded him.
"Quarter, quarter, semi, semi - it's got to be a natural progression to the final," he says with a grin. However, he and the world knows all about the Big Brother he has to overcome to achieve his ambition - Pete Sampras. The American beat Henman in his last three most significant matches on the grass courts he thrives on - twice in the Wimbledon semi-finals, once in the Stella Artois final.
"On those occasions, whether I like it or not, I've come up against 100 per cent the best grass court player that's ever played, and I've been very close on each occasion," Henman said. "I think it's fair to say that Pete can't get much better. But I definitely think that I've got a lot of improving to do and that's what's exciting for me. Pete will probably be around for a few more years, but I feel my best is yet to come. I think I'm three years away from playing my best tennis." As part of that intended progression, Henman has employed a new fitness trainer in the last six weeks, replacing Tim Newenham with Kieran Vorster, the London-based coach to South African player Wayne Ferreira. His decision was prompted by his disappointingly early exit from the US Open.
"It was definitely time to re-evaluate," he said. "I need to take things to a new level to become fitter and stronger just to try and stay one step ahead of the game. If you want to play well in the Grand Slams, you're going to play seven best-of-five-set matches over 14 days. It's not so testing on grass, but in places like Australia you are playing in 115 degrees on the court. And if you're not in good shape, you're not going to be able to do it." In a week where Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have made the sporting headlines with their sporting re-runs at the Albert Hall, Henman is patently a young man driven to achieve similar standing. Although his take on the Golden Oldies is a waspish one.
"Go back 20 years and every journalist writing about tennis was saying that Borg and McEnroe should have been thrown out of the game because their behaviour was terrible," he said. "Twenty years on everybody is so professional and so competitive and so focused on what they're trying to do, and now you've got all the journalists saying: "Where have all the characters gone?" So I think the press have to make up their minds..." Do you hear that? Make up your minds, you lot! Is it Fatboy Slim or what?
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