Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Henman relishes home support

Wimbledon 99: British No 1 in confident mood as he prepares for campaign to fulfil nation's great expectations
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The Independent Online
WHEN TIM HENMAN smiles coyly and describes the Wimbledon crowds as "nice and biased", he is telling it as it is: may the best man win, and may that man be one of ours.

The last eight words of that philosophy were appended during the course of the past three years, when Britain's participation in the world's most prestigious tennis tournament ceased to be a lost cause and was transformed into a vibrant, two-man campaign.

Greg Rusedski, the beaming Canadian import, sampled a Grand Slam final at the 1997 United States Open, after he and Henman had progressed to the Wimbledon quarter-finals. Henman, the pride of Oxfordshire, was only denied a place in the Wimbledon final last July by Pete Sampras, the world's greatest player. "I'm always going to believe I can win the tournament," Henman says, "and I was two matches away from it."

Sampras, who has won the title five times, is sure to slow down sooner or later. Henman came close to defeating the 27-year-old Californian for the first time on the grass at Queen's Club six days ago, although that was in a final played over the best of three sets. Wimbledon matches are over the best of five sets, and Henman and his American friend will each have to win five of those matches if they are to meet again in the semi- finals. "Whatever the story of Pete's year so far, he'll still be the favourite," Henman says.

What was particularly impressive about Henman at Wimbledon last year, aside from his game, was the attitude he adopted after losing to Sampras. He took little solace in having advanced so far. "I think that is my nature," Henman says. "I realise, now that I'm at this level, I'm not in it to be taking part, or getting through rounds. I want to win these tournaments.

"When I was playing as well as I was last year, and I was in the semis, I really thought that I had a good chance. It was a close match, and it didn't go my way, and I was really disappointed. But now, looking back on that, it gives me a lot of confidence, especially for this year."

That is not to say that the sixth-seeded Henman regards the forthcoming fortnight, which opens for him with a match against the Frenchman Arnaud Di Pasquale, as a case of win-or-bust. "From my point of view, I would still say I've probably got four or five more Wimbledons where I've got a very, very good chance," Henman says. "I'd love to win it as soon as possible but, if it doesn't happen this year, I know that I'll have a lot of other opportunities."

On 6 September, Henman will be 25 and Rusedski 26, middle-aged in tennis terms. "You could probably use the term middle-aged," Henman says, "but I still think with regard to my game and my development that, realistically, I'm a couple of years away from being at my peak. I think I've developed later - I didn't start playing professionally until after my 18th birthday - and my results have come a little later than most. But I don't think there is any reason why I can't have another really good run this year."

During the Monte Carlo Open in April, played on slow clay courts, two former Italian players, Nicola Pietrangeli and Lea Pericoli, admired Henman's game but wondered if his classical style might be too much of a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s to bring success at the end of the 1990s.

"That is the way I play," Henman counters. "It is more a game, perhaps, of a few years ago, but it is still a pretty effective one. There are a lot of guys who play very similarly to each other, and that is probably where I stand out. If these guys get into the routine of playing similar styles, week in, week out, then, if you break that up, I think you're in with a chance."

There are not too many serve-volleyers around. "Not genuine serve and volleyers, no. [Pat] Rafter, Greg, myself, Sampras to a certain extent, [Richard] Krajicek, and [Mark] Philippoussis."

Some players contrive an attacking game for the faster surfaces. "That's right. But look at the way some of these guys have adjusted to the indoor courts, which have definitely been made a bit slower. [Carlos] Moya and [Alex] Corretja at the end of last year were playing as good as anyone indoors. That goes to show the depth of the game in every area, which makes it so competitive."

The determination Henman showed in overcoming the American Todd Martin during Britain's epic Davis Cup tie in Birmingham at Easter, although Britain eventually lost to the United States, marks the match out as one of the highlights of his career.

"That was really exciting and very satisfying," Henman says. "I was up against it, a set and a break down, and really raised my level. In those sort of conditions - the atmosphere and the expectation - it was a great feeling to come through that match. Four hours later, it was all very disappointing, but I think everybody looks back on that tie with a lot of good memories. I think from our point of view we realised then how big the Davis Cup was."

At that point, the interview was interrupted by a cry of "Superstar!" Martin and an American compatriot happened to be passing through the players' lounge. "We're trying to have an interview, yeah?" Henman retorted, adding: "We were just talking about you, as well, just saying you're an absolute..." The room filled with the sound of laughter. As the Americans reached the door, Henman delivered a parting shot: "Now I'll just finish slagging you off, all right?" As if.

The more Henman sees of Wimbledon, the keener his anticipation becomes.

"It always has been my favourite tournament and my favourite time of the year," he says. "It definitely takes a little bit of getting used to - the whole scenario of the fortnight and the whole intensity of the spotlight, if you like. But I love it. And the grass always gives me a lot of confidence. I've had a lot of good results, so I'm at home in more ways than one, that's for sure."

His list of gratifying Wimbledon experiences has grown. "Obviously when I beat [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov in '96, for all sorts of reasons; it was the first time I was on Centre Court, and he was the French Open champion, two sets to love up, and I saved match point, and I won in five. That will always stand out. I think that was a big turning point in my career. And in '97, when I beat [Paul] Haarhuis [14-12 in the fifth set]. I played OK, I didn't play great, but it was only the second time there was play on the middle Sunday, and the atmosphere was unbelievable, similar to the Davis Cup."

The spectators, with or without Union Jacks, fancy dress, and painted faces, have responded wholeheartedly to the British challenge. "They're a good crowd," Henman says. "It's not like they're making a lot of noise in the rallies. But they're nice and biased, I think that helps. They're always right behind me, and I really appreciate that. It is a great atmosphere and, if you're struggling, they can give you a huge lift."

For many years, the crowds were going to Wimbledon without the slightest expectation of a home victory. "If you look at the attendances," Henman says, "even when tennis was struggling in the UK, the figures were still huge and getting bigger and bigger. And with what has happened in the last couple of years, with the change in fortunes, I think they enjoy having some genuine contenders to support."

Behind the scenes, however, there are fears concerning the continued health of the British game, with little sign of young players coming through to take the baton from Henman and Rusedski. "There's a huge gap," Henman says. "Greg and I have increased the awareness and the interest in the game, but I think at times we're a bit of a smokescreen.

"If you talk to the average punter in the street, who maybe doesn't know that much about tennis, and ask him what British tennis is like at the moment, he'll say: `Well, it's great isn't it? We've got two guys seeded for Wimbledon and they're winning some of the big tournaments in the world'.

"But, if you take us two aside, there is a huge void and I just hope a group of guys can come along and fill that and start competing and pushing each other higher and higher. That is what Greg and I have done. We've pushed each other farther and farther up the rankings. But we're not going to be around for ever."

So what can be done to nurture potential talent? "To a certain extent, I feel like I have a responsibility but, there again, I feel what I am doing on the court is the most important thing. So there are times when I feel I've got enough to worry about, I'll let somebody else worry about that. I hope people at the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association] can really capitalise on it, and good luck to them. I'll give them all the support I can.

"Fingers crossed, I think Patrice [Hagelauer, the LTA's performance director] is going to be a big influence. I hope he is given a fee rein to do as he pleases. He has been involved with French tennis, and they're producing guys left, right, and centre, real quality players."

The situation is worrying. Whatever great things Henman and Rusedski may achieve, the renaissance may be brief, leaving the British enthusiasts asking: Where has our tennis gone?

"You'll be out of a job, John."