Tennis: Time for Team Henman

Chris Bowers in Melbourne argues that outside help is the way to fulfil potential
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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN cut a dejected figure in the Australian Open interview room. For four hours and 19 minutes the Briton had toiled against Jerome Golmard, only to come away the loser of an 11-9 final set. "I think that was the worst match I've ever played," he said, his voice close to breaking with frustration.

The irritation is rooted in the failure to eradicate a puzzling flaw at least four months after having identified it. At the US Open, where he played superb tennis to beat Thomas Muster and then put up scant resistance against Wayne Ferreira, Henman said: "When I'm good I'm great, when I'm bad I'm awful - I have to find a way of being more consistent if I'm to play at the level I'm aiming for."

The week before the Australian Open he had played some superb tennis in Sydney, culminating in an inspired three-set victory over Patrick Rafter in the semi-final. Yet in the final he squandered a 4-0 first-set lead to lose in straight sets to Karel Kucera. And then came the debacle against Golmard.

So why the brilliance one day and the dross the next? There could be any number of reasons, but while the buck ultimately stops with Henman himself, it's natural that questions are asked about those around him, in particular his long- standing coach David Felgate.

Felgate, 34, is the most successful of a generation of British players who have turned to coaching after failing to make it on the full professional circuit. Failure as a player does not make for a bad coach (the competition is so intense that there are plenty of quality players who don't make it into the top 200), but until Felgate none of his contemporaries had coached a player into the top 50.

Felgate has been with Henman for seven years, originally in a Lawn Tennis Association squad, now as his personal coach, and in that time he has helped Henman to 14th in the rankings. But to understand whether Felgate is the right man for Henman you have to know what a player looks for in a coach. And that's a very subjective matter.

Warren Jacques, Britain's Davis Cup captain from 1988 to 1990 who first took the 15-year-old Henman on tour, said the key to supervising a top male player lies in three factors: "He has to be a good but tough friend, with confidence and trust on both sides. He has to know the ins and outs of the off-court game, reading opponents and preparing the player well. And there are times when a player needs modification to his technique - not often, because players are only at that level if their technique is right, but sometimes something needs tinkering with, and in Tim's case I think the serve is the area that needs looking at."

Felgate seems to match up on all three counts. Henman clearly has confidence in him; Felgate understands the off-court preparatory side; and the improvement in Henman's serve and forehand testify to his technical awareness. Perhaps more importantly, Felgate has recognised where specialist outside help is needed by enlisting the services of a fitness coach Tim Newenham. Henman himself has said he needs to be stronger, but any fitness regime must be carefully constructed for a player who had an elbow operation 10 months ago and still has a plate in his foot from a fracture in 1992.

Jacques believes Henman has a mental block over his serve - "if his first serve isn't working he's often in deep trouble because he doesn't trust his second serve enough" - but he also thinks Felgate is the right man for the job. "I was originally a bit sceptical about David's lack of international experience," he said, "but he's proved many of us wrong."

That view is shared by Tony Roche, the 1969 Wimbledon finalist who coached Ivan Lendl and Mark Philippoussis: "Tim's come a long way in a short time, so people shouldn't get worried by a little inconsistency. It's steady progress that's important, and he's still making that."

Henman is reported to have told friends that he can see himself staying with Felgate throughout his career. As long as Felgate feels able to bring in outside help when it becomes necessary, it could be the continuation of a beautiful friendship.