Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Courier iron tests mettle of Henman

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The Independent Online
HE WAS looking down both barrels, and the man at the other end had cocked the triggers. At 5-6 and 15-40 on his own serve in the fifth set, after four and a quarter hours of play, one mistake would have done for Tim Henman. And there had been plenty of those. Jim Courier had given himself two match points by driving a vicious return at his opponent's ankles and then sweeping away the scrambled reply with a chillingly brusque forehand. "Not a good situation," Henman thought to himself.

A ferocious serve saved him the first of those points. On the second, he came in with a deep volley behind his second serve and forced Courier to hit a backhand wide. But a minute later, Courier had won himself a third match point. Henman smacked an ace down the centre-line, put away a high backhand volley, and finished the game by sending another serve whistling down the middle. Six-all.

"In a strange sort of way it relaxed me a little bit," Henman said afterwards. "Once I got out of that game I was happy to be still out there, and it definitely relaxed me."

More conventional forms of motivation had already failed him. At 5-5, holding a break point, he had started talking to himself. "I said to myself: `Come on, this is what you practise for, this is what you put in all the hard work for. You've got to enjoy this, this is what it's all about.' Then I took a step back and I thought: `God, who are you trying to kid?'"

His attention refocused, Henman narrowly failed to convert three break points of his own in the 13th game, served out to love for 7-7, and then fought his way to 30-all on Courier's serve. And at that moment the gods spoke. Moving to the net behind his return, Henman played another deep volley to the angle of the advantage court. Courier, astonishingly, left it. The judge held his hands together, pointing downwards in the gesture that says: "Ball in." Hearing the call of 30-40, the American squatted with his hands over his head and hopped up and down in exactly the helplessly anguished manner of Basil Fawlty upon being discovered by his lady wife with his hand on a nubile Australian girl's breast.

Courier eventually returned to the baseline, but an audible obscenity directed at the chair cost him a warning. Possibly his concentration, too, as Henman followed in his second-serve return with a nerveless stop volley to take the game. As the American walked back to his chair for the changeover, he paused to resume the dialogue with the umpire, Jorge Dias of Portugal. "I told him umpires shouldn't be a factor in the outcome of matches. Players should be. That was stupid for me to say. I was just angry. I understand as well as anybody the nature of the beast." Sitting on his chair before going out to serve to stay in the match, Courier tossed his soft-drink cup over his shoulder and was booed.

"Actually, I would have liked a little more partisanship," he said later, referring to his relish for stacking up the odds against him. "But I think the crowd were very good." And as Henman served out to win the match, again to love, the spectators showed their appreciation of the stirring entertainment so generously provided by both men.

But what will please Henman and his coach, David Felgate, is that he took on a warrior and won. Test match bowlers used to say that when Gordon Greenidge, the great West Indian opening batsmen, began to limp, it was time to start worrying. Courier was suffering from a cold, had played through the second longest match in Wimbledon history on Friday, and now found himself facing possibly the most partisan crowd in all sport. This was his kind of challenge. A man built for knock-down, drag-out marathons, Courier looks as though he is covered in red-clay dust even when he is playing on grass, and in order to match his doggedness Henman needed to reach down and find previously unexploited reserves of persistence. In the end he revealed a blend of courage and skill symbolised by the two bold volleys, one deep to the far corner and the other finessed over the net with maximum delicacy that gave him the match.

He had been disappointed not to be able to finish it off on Monday night, when the momentum was with him. "I was in a really good rhythm, very much in control, and it's difficult when you come out in such an intense match to have to start again at 4-3 in the fourth. There's no opportunity to feel your way in. Every point is crucial and I struggled with that to begin with today. I wasn't moving very well or finding a rhythm on my first or second serve."

Courier, by contrast, had been delighted by the interruption. "It helped me in that it cooled Tim off," he said. "The way he was playing, it was like an alien abduction out there, like someone had invaded his body and turned him into the greatest volleyer in the universe. And today he came back to earth a little, which was nice."

Not for long enough, however, to suit Courier's purposes. In the end, Henman simply had what it took. You can point out, if you want, that his opponent is currently ranked No 61 in the world, that he has never won Wimbledon, and that he has not won a Grand Slam at all since 1993. But Courier had beaten Henman in both their previous meetings, and he was generally believed to hold a distinct advantage in the mental battle. Whether or not Henman now goes on to become the first British man to win the title since 1936, he faced a very special kind of test between 1.54pm on Monday and 3.53pm yesterday, and passed it with honours.