Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Sampras gatecrashes the Hen party

Tim Glover suggests that the British No 1 needs to get nasty to win
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The Independent Online
THE ONLY variation in the lawn chorus came when Tim Henman lost the third set. "You're going out Timmy, you're going out," said a lady who then turned to her friend and added: "He's a loser." She was probably from New York.

Wherever she was from, it was a harsh remark (harsh but fair, some would say), and she was in a minority. Despite Henman's comments about the greed of the women's game, 99.9 per cent of the sisterhood gathered at Wimbledon yesterday wanted more than anything to see Henman beat the boring American Pete Sampras and become the first Brit to reach the men's final since Bunny Austin just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

No disrespect to Bunny, but he and his hickory racket wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes out there yesterday. There was no Bunnymania in 1938 and, curiously, Henmania was a bit subdued on the Centre Court.

The Union Jack was in evidence on hats, carrier bags and little flags, but one of tennis's great amphitheatres seemed to be choked by the weight of expectation. It didn't help that when the match started - one of the most momentous in the history of British lawn tennis - there were plenty of empty seats. Well, it was lunch time.

Sampras, who has never been taken to five sets by Henman, began like a man who was stepping on to the Centre Court for the first time. He had as many double faults in his opening game as he had throughout the fortnight. Despite the fact that they had been here before - like last year's semi- final when Sampras also won in four sets - the players played as if they were nervous. So was the crowd.

Singular, staccato cries of "Come on Tim" broke the peace although when Henman comfortably took the first set, he did so to applause of mega-decibels. Could this be the day when Henman joined Bunny or would he once again become Sampras's rabbit?

For a spell it looked odds on for the former. Henman's serve was accurate and varied (at least in the early stages) and Sampras, who looks as if he has just got out of bed at a beachside condominium in San Diego on a Sunday morning, had not yet smelled the coffee, let alone tasted it.

During the second set somebody yelled: "Come on Pete." It was an exasperated shout, delivered in the manner of: "For Pete's sake."

During the eighth game of the second set, a pigeon landed near Henman and began to strut around, centre stage. When it was finally shooed off, it paused first for a lap of honour, almost dipping its wings like a Spitfire. The crowd loved it but Henman's expression was such that he'd have probably belied his name and dispatched the bird with a backhand but for the attention of so many witnesses.

And then the turning point, Henman throwing in a couple of double faults, losing his serve and the set 6-4. Over on the picnic lawn at Aorangi Park, hundreds of spectators watched the action on a giant screen while stuffing their faces.

But even there the atmosphere was tense, almost more oppressive than the weather. The applause for Henman was becoming less frequent but in any case he couldn't hear it, not from picnic mountain.

Sampras, the world number one who has almost a monopoly on Wimbledon, was beginning to move into his blitzkrieg mode - some of his backhands had to be seen to be believed, although they were so fast this was almost impossible - and it was only then that the crowd stirred itself into a chorus of: "Henman, Henman, Henman." It was too late. The hen party was over for another year.

Sampras, uniquely, does not wear a sweatband on his wrist. Why should he? This was no sweat for probably the greatest player to grace the lawns of the All England Club.

As for Henman, he is not without hope. He has a few years on Sampras, although he may have to stop playing golf with the American, whom he regards as a friend. What Henman has to do is concentrate once more on becoming a nasty piece of work. He showed the darker side of his personality here a few years ago when he vented his anger on a ball and hit a ball girl in the process, and one senses - with a seismic culture change - that a British audience is finally ready to embrace a bad winner.