British glory continues to gather dust in archives

Australian Open: Bjorkman's inspired performance extinguishes nation's hopes of first men's Grand Slam tennis title for 64 years
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The Independent Online

Tim Henman's familiar descent from hero to zero in Melbourne over the weekend made even his admirers wonder if the British No 1 really has what it takes to win a major championship, or if three losing semi-finals at Wimbledon will be as good as he gets.

My boss, an enthusiastic club hacker who envies Henman's elegant style, said on the eve of Friday's "Battle of the Britons" that while he would like to see Henman win the third-round match, he had more faith in Greg Rusedski's capability of winning the tournament.

This view, while partly based on the fact that Rusedski, unlike Henman, had competed in a Grand Slam final, at the 1997 United States Open, and had won an ATP Masters Series tournament, defeating Pete Sampras in the final of the Paris Indoor event in 1998, was rooted in Henman's fallibility over the long haul.

Henman's knack of building up his critics to knock him down prevailed. An almost flawless display of confidence and consistency against Rusedski, who was left cursing the umpire and the injustice of losing in four sets after playing reasonably well, was followed by yesterday's depressing let-down against Jonas Bjorkman, whose straight-sets win took him through to a meeting with Thomas Johansson, a Swedish compatriot, in the quarter-finals.

Bjorkman's tennis was as inspired as Henman's was flat, and the gulf in confidence grew as the match progressed. Henman, whose calm, steady serving had frustrated Rusedski, double-faulted on the first point against Bjorkman, and his nervous start emboldened the 29-year-old Swede, one of the best returners of serve in the game. Henman's volleying, which had stretched Rusedski, was suspect at crucial moments – such as one he netted when serving for the second set at 5-3. When the second set went to a tie-break, Bjorkman became edgy after winning the opening exchanges, only to end Henman's prospects of levelling the contest by producing breathtaking shots. Most memorable was a leaping smash return, Henman having cracked the ball within Bjorkman's range. It was not long before the 27-year-old from Oxford was packing his rackets at the end of his 28th Grand Slam event.

Away from Wimbledon, where Henman has reached three semi-finals and two quarter-finals in eight campaigns, he has yet to advance beyond the fourth round. This is compelling evidence for those who contend that while Henman may be the finest British-born player for generations, he is not a born winner and will always fall short of emulating Fred Perry which means that Britain's glory in men's tennis will continue to gather dust in the archives of the 1930s.

Few players have Henman's racket skills and nimble movement, so is there a flaw in his make-up when he competes at the highest level? It cannot be said that he always falls against the best known players. Some of his major defeats have been to comparative unknowns. During the nine years that Henman was coached by David Felgate it was often said that a more experienced mentor was needed to eliminate the errors on his serve and forehand and to improve his levels of concentration and consistency.

Six months into Henman's association with Larry Stefanki, an American who has coached, among others, John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, there were signs that the bad habits were being eradicated. Was it only last Friday that the quality of Henman's performance in defeating Rusedski for his eighth consecutive win of the season drew comparisons with Stefan Edberg in some quarters (including this one)?

Your correspondent has witnessed the fragility of Henman's game often enough to guard against wild assumptions, whether he happens to be the highest surviving seed in a tournament, as happened in Melbourne last week, or the top seed, as in Adelaide, where he won the opening event of the year. But class will tell, and I would not be surprised if the disparate parts of Henman's game and psyche finally fall into place at Wimbledon this year.