Disadvantage Henman: why the home hero needs help fast

The Interview - Tim Henman: Slower grass courts play into the hands of the baseliners. Ronald Atkin hears Britain's No 1 make his case for more favourable conditions
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The Independent Online

These are anxious times for Tim Henman. With a just week until the start of Wimbledon, the tournament where annually he shoulders the expectations of a nation, Henman is some distance below what he, and his supporters, regard as the sort of form which might, at long last, end the 67-year drought since Fred Perry hoisted the trophy for the home country.

As he readily acknowledges, Henman's necessarily cautious rehab following shoulder surgery seven months ago has left him short of matches and even shorter of wins as, for the 10th time, he embarks in pursuit of the one tennis title he has coveted since first setting foot on the All England Club premises at the age of five and being enraptured by Bjorn Borg.

Four times in the last five years the Wimbledon semi-finals have featured the name of Henman, but is he far enough along the recovery road to match, or exceed, that mark? Tomorrow Wimbledon announce their seeds, and Henman is certain to be among the 32 men the Grand Slams now see fit to nominate. But just where will he figure, as someone who this weekend has dipped to 28th in the world rankings? Though a tendency to tamper with those rankings and favour grass-court expertise has been curbed as a result of complaints, Wimbledon can be expected to elevate their favourite son considerably higher than 28th.

John Lloyd feels, as one of only five players he considers capable of winning, that Henman should be seeded in the first five. Though this is unlikely to happen, Henman concurs with Lloyd's value judgement. "Absolutely, I have always felt I have as good a chance as anyone on grass, apart perhaps from Lleyton Hewitt with his grass-court record. There are not many with a genuine chance of winning, though that is probably changing."

That change has come about because of an accepted need to slow down the game on grass ever since Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic indulged in one-shot tennis in Wimbledon's 1998 final. "There has been a big effort to slow the game down, and some of the indoor surfaces needed it," said Henman, taking time out from his own struggles with the slower courts in the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club.

"But if you look at the results from last year, when six of the eight Wimbledon quarter-finalists were baseliners, there are going to be people posing the question whether it has been slowed down too much. And that includes me. It is making life a lot harder, that's for sure.

"A few years ago, gameplans didn't come into it. It was a race to get to the net. Now everybody seems to get a good look and plenty of time to set up the returns and passing shots. The Spanish guys are asking me how the courts are going to play, because people have realised, after last year's results, you don't need to serve and volley on grass. You can stay back and hammer away from the baseline. It has obviously changed the nature of the tournament.

"Wimbledon's response to the complaints last year was that nothing had changed, which I found a bit surprising. I am reluctant to say this or that about the conditions, because at the end of the day, as a player, it makes no difference. I have to work and adjust my game to those conditions. But in other parts of the world the court conditions are going to be more favourable to the home players.

"If it was a cricket pitch, I am sure it would be prepared to the strength of the England team. I just spoke to Hewitt in the locker room and he said he was going to play doubles [at Queen's Club] so that he could serve and volley. I told him he should serve and volley on his first point in singles, just to say he had done it once this week. It's amazing to think a guy has won [the Stella] three times, yet he didn't serve and volley one point last year against me in the final.

"But, that said, at Wimbledon last summer I played the worst I have played in six years there and still got to the semi-finals. So I have to try and take positives out of that, and think I can go further this time."

Henman's priority, though, must remain to attack. As Pat Cash observes: "Tim is not going to scare anybody from the back of the court." At the French Open, where he got to the third round and then took a set off the eventual champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Henman argued that his slow start to the year would ensure his arrival at Wimbledon feeling fresher, but conceded that his best results in 2003 could come later, at the US Open and on the European autumn indoor circuit.

Despite a scare in March, when he had a recurrence of shoulder pain and needed a scan, Henman insists his shoulder is fine, though he nowadays takes the precaution of carrying his tennis bags over the left shoulder. "There is an element of relief that I am able, touch wood, to say that I am 100 per cent healthy." That, plus his record at Wimbledon, is what persuades Tim he can go the distance this time.

"It helps that I have got so many positive memories and played so many good matches there that I am able to draw a lot of confidence from that. Throw in the support I get, which gives me a big lift and puts extra pressure on my opponents. All the added expectation, attention and opinions don't faze me a great deal, because it is out of my control. I have always felt it is best to get out on court and worry about what I can control, and that has been something that has worked for me for years.

"Wimbledon is the most special place in tennis. I have been going there for such a long time, as a spectator and as a player, and the whole feel of the place is unique. If I ever walked through the gates and it didn't mean something, then it would be time to do something about it."

The fact that Wimbledon's hill where the overspill public congregate has been named after him is the thing, he says, which makes him proudest of all about the place, though he stresses that the adulation and expectation are things he accepts rather than welcomes. "A lot of the other players have a lot of fun with it," he adds. Last year, when Andre Agassi, Sampras and Marat Safin all lost on the same day, one front page said: "No pressure Tim, but if you choke this year we will never forgive you".

"That was stuck on the walls of the locker room and the players were reading it in amazement," Henman says. "They were just as amazed as I was, but what can I do about it?" Henman professes lack of concern about the "nearly man" critics. "If it is people's perception that I be judged on whether I win Wimbledon or not, then that's up to them. It doesn't worry me, because I know how I feel about it.

"I have no complaints about three of my semi-final losses. If you ask why I lost to Sampras twice, it was because Sampras was better than me. I have no complaints about losing to Hewitt last year. But Ivanisevic was different two years ago. That one doesn't sit particularly well with me, purely because of the nature of the match.

"I won the third set in 14 minutes, I think, and lost only four points and was 2-1 up in the fourth, and certainly the momentum was in my favour. At that stage you are putting nails in the coffin, saying: 'I am going to stamp my authority on this fourth set and finish you off'."

Then, of course, came the rain delays, which afforded Ivanisevic a breather and the opportunity to reassess, and eventually to win in five sets. "The nature of that match was the most difficult I have had to play in my career," says Henman. "I played five sets and a couple of tie-breaks and I lost my serve just twice in five sets."

If that defeat still lives with him, Tim readily admits he deserves criticism for his record in the other Grand Slams. He has never been beyond the fourth round at the Australian or US Opens, and never past the third at the French. "That's where I would put question marks against myself."

As someone who is closing in on his 29th birthday, Henman knows the clock is ticking, though he shrugs aside thoughts that his best may now be behind him. Citing the case of Andre Agassi, still playing beautifully at 33, he says: "If I can stay healthy, there is no reason why I can't play another five years at the top."

And the way he puts it, with a broad smile, you have to hope Tim Henman will give us five more years. Plus a Wimbledon title.

Biography: Timothy Henry Henman

Born: 6 September 1974 in Oxford.

Family: Wife Lucy, daughter Rose.

Height: 1.85m. Weight: 77kg.

Singles titles: (9) - Sydney, Tashkent (1997); Basel, Tashkent (1998); Brighton, Vienna (2000); Basel, Copenhagen (2001); Adelaide (2002). Doubles titles: 3. Earnings: $8m.

Background: Began playing at two. Grandfather Henry Billington competed at Wimbledon, great- grandmother Ellen Stawell Brown was first lady to serve overarm at Wimbledon in 1901. Supports Oxford Utd. Member of British Davis Cup team since 1994. Since 2001 has been coached by Larry Stefanki.

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