Brian Viner: New generation takes command

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The Independent Online

This was the year in which England's footballers were said to have their best chance of winning a European Championship, and Tim Henman his best chance of winning Wimbledon. Neither England nor Henman got further than the quarter-final. We should learn something from this, although I'm not entirely sure what. Perhaps that, as a nation, and not only in sport, we are perennial quarter-finalists, always tripping up, agonisingly, just that one step before the penultimate step.

This was the year in which England's footballers were said to have their best chance of winning a European Championship, and Tim Henman his best chance of winning Wimbledon. Neither England nor Henman got further than the quarter-final. We should learn something from this, although I'm not entirely sure what. Perhaps that, as a nation, and not only in sport, we are perennial quarter-finalists, always tripping up, agonisingly, just that one step before the penultimate step.

The self-delusion will continue, of course. It is part of our psyche. Only yesterday, as a taxi conveyed me to Wimbledon through the traffic-clogged streets of a city assailed by a Tube strike (in public transport terms, we can only dream of reaching the quarter-final), I contradicted my driver, who said that Henman had no chance of winning Wimbledon this or any other year.

Of course he had a chance, I said, mildly irritated with this familiar tendency to knock the fellow. "Well, you're the sports writer," said the driver, exhibiting a hitherto unknown ability on the part of a London cabbie to admit he might not be right. I wondered what he said to the radio as Henman subsequently crashed out in straight sets. "But I'm the cabbie, so don't start telling me about sport."

It would be perverse to blame Henman's defeat on the burden of carrying a nation's hopes. So often he has said that he is lifted by all the worship he gets on Centre Court, so nobody can ascribe yesterday's defeat to a surfeit of worship.

However, the quasi-religious fervour of the diehard Henman fans - one of whom, a man, was picked up by the BBC cameras deep in prayer as the Englishman went 5-1 down in the third set - has become a dangerous phenomenon. It reminds me, in all its histrionic excess, of the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In fact I wouldn't mind seeing a Venn diagram encompassing those who made a pilgrimage to Kensington Palace in 1997, and those who wept real salt tears on Henman Hill yesterday. I would expect to see a considerable overlap.

All idols are eventually found to have feet of clay, and therein lies the danger of making idols of them. But history weighs heavily on us all. It is now 68 years since an Englishman, Fred Perry, last won the men's singles at Wimbledon. Or even reached the final. So I suppose we can be forgiven for a slight note of hysteria in urging Henman towards the holy grail. What we keep forgetting, year after year, is the salient point about holy grails - that they are impossible to find.

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