Tennis: Miles of political smiles make Henman a winner

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The Independent Online
I WAS simply standing by these double doors, not doing anything in particular (something I do rather well I believe), when they opened and the late president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Primo Nebiolo, entered the room and shook me by the hand.

Obviously he wasn't late in that sense at the time of this incident, which took place before a press conference at the 1997 World Championships in Athens. He was, however, a bit late for the press conference, which may explain why he was distracted enough to be shaking the hand of someone whom he did not know, and who had absolutely no wish to be shaking his hand.

Anyway, the thing is that I suddenly found myself gripped, both figuratively and actually. Something in the little Italian's body language made it impossible for me not to shake his hand. The same kind of thing happens at family gatherings when aged female relatives proffer their cheeks for a kiss. You just have to kiss them. You are leaning forward to do so before you can even consider the fact that you don't want to...

But this fleeting physical contact, paradoxically, served only to confirm the complete absence of contact in any meaningful sense. As he moved on, Nebiolo had established himself as an even more distant figure. To that extent, he had achieved only part of the politician's art. I'll tell you what - as Alan Hansen would say - that Nebiolo, he could take lessons on the subject from Tim Henman. (Although, of course, he can't now.) Britain's No 1 tennis player - as he is able to call himself, having finished two places ahead of Greg Rusedski in this year's world rankings - attended the HSBC British Schools Team competition earlier this week. After being picked up from his home in Barnes at 5.30am, he was driven to the event venue of the Redbridge Sports Centre, where he underwent a succession of interviews from television, radio and print media. His schedule had no clear breaks in it, although compared to the one he had undertaken in supporting the event a couple of years earlier, it was conservative. On that occasion he had given 33 interviews.

As the 25-year-old moved from camera to camera, microphone to microphone, notepad to notepad - in what came to resemble one of those lightning chess matches sometimes undertaken by world champions against roomfuls of lesser players - his attention was constantly snagged (Tim!) by the (TIM!) presence of (would you mind? Thanks ever so much... for Suzanne, please... thanks so much...) autograph (could you sign this for Alex, please? Thank you) hunters (oh dear, I think I've opened the floodgates now... sorry!). Throughout the day, knots of expectant children (can you sign this for David, please? Thanks...) gathered and dispersed, gathered (can you sign my T-shirt, please? Can you sign it here?) and dispersed (and mine please, Tim!).

Meanwhile Tim was dispatching the requests as if they were volleys at the net. "Not a problem... no problem... there you go... is that Sarah with an h?... OK... for Elizabeth. Is that your girlfriend? Just a friend. OK... there you go... see you later... not a problem..."

Other aspects of Henman's PR skills were also on regular call. As the matches in the main hall concluded, members of the 16 teams involved made their way in turn up to the bar, where Henman was holding court and slamming down the whiskies (that bit isn't true) in order to have their photograph taken sitting beside him. One by one the youngsters departed, the girls flushed, the boys thrilled, but ostentatiously casual. As each batch of pictures was developed and laid upon a large table, Henman leaned over them and signed with the diligence of a schoolboy doing his prep.

That attitude, in fact, seemed the one which informs everything Henman does. Didn't he ever feel like putting two fingers up to the world? Didn't he ever yearn to turn up somewhere in ripped jeans with bleached blond hair? The question provoked incomprehension. Bemusement. Bafflement. "It's not the way I am," he said. "What you see is what you get. I'm not acting. It's not a facade." Visiting the gents, I found myself standing alongside the event photographer who had been arranging Henman alongside A N Other all day and who, what's more, had done exactly the same job the year before, and the year before that and the year before that.

"He's amazing," the photographer said. "I reckon I must have taken his picture 150 times today, and he always manages to smile. And you know what - it's always exactly the same smile." The organisers called Henman a wonderful role model for the children, but he showed he was more than that. This boy is a politician in the making.

One hundred and fifty smiles. All identical. Think about it...