Henman aims to put fact before fiction

Man on a mission: The burdened one is determined to disprove the experts who feel that this will not be his year
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The Independent Online

Now it gets serious. As the evening shadows lengthened on Centre Court, Tim Heman's championship odds shortened, even if the British No 1 would privately be the first to accept that his victim, Robin Soderling, was the latest in a sequence bearing something of a similarity to Audley Harrison's opponents. Not bums, but like the teenaged Swede, ill-equipped to threaten Henman's progress towards a second week in which last year's runner-up David Nalbandian, the French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, the ageless Andre Agassi and the tournament favourite Andy Roddick will provide a rather more potent challenge to the onset of terminal Henmania.

Because that is surely what finally living the dream would induce in his followers; serious damage to the health of those whose patience has deserved rather more reward than anything the object of their devotion has provided over the years. Those like the fanatic who hoisted the plaintive message: "I love Tim more than Marmite". Now that is real support.

Mind you, it was an agonising wait before Henman finally arrived on court to sate their desires; a hiatus, as it turned out that he did not relish. Third act of the day on centre stage, he had to bide his time in the changing toom while Andre Agassi accounted for "Hallelujah", as Ronnie Barker, one of yesterday's Royal Box guests, attempted to pronounce the name of the Moroccan No 1, Younes El Aynaoui, and then for Jennifer Capriati's game with Akiko Morigami to unfold, so to speak.

There was just a concern that bad light might intrude and force Henman's contest to run over until Monday. At one stage, Capriati's victory was postponed by a rally from her opponent. "I've never been that interested in women's tennis before, but I was certainly willing Capriati on," Henman admitted. "When she was a break down in the second set, I was actually trying to get her motivated and get her game back on track. When she won in straight sets, that that's probably the most pleased I've been for a women's result in a long time."

Of course, we have witnessed Britain's finest galleon lured on to the rocks by wreckers from the lower order before. There is always that slight suspicion that this is Tim, nice but diminished by an unhealthy burden of expectation. Yet, last week in general, and yesterday evening specifically, there was never a chance that Henman would be deflected from the fulfillment of his mission.

The 10th seed did not even have to be at his most fluid as he has negotiated a route past a "lucky loser" and two other qualifiers, the second an 18-year-old ranked 155. His latest was a demolition job, with the foundations of the Swede's game obligingly falling apart at crucial moments. Boris Becker has advocated a policy of "chip and charge" for the Briton, but in truth that was rarely required as Henman won through in a touch over 90 minutes.

For the moment, he is content that his strategy is correct, his focus clear. Certainly, he regards himself in much better fettle than this time last year. "Oh, absolutely," he stressed. "No comparison. Apart from my first-round game last year, the other four that I won and five that I played were just a struggle from start to finish. The last two matches this year certainly bode well for the next week."

If those fortunates among the Royal Box occupants spent much of the first two sets shielding their eyes, it was not from Henman's consummate brilliance; just from a sun which set on a day which brought renewed optimism to those with the future of British tennis in their hearts at the conclusion of a dismal week.

Summer would not be quite the same if we did not undergo a period of intense flagellation at Britain's inability to produce more than one championship contender born here and another adopted son who, where Wimbledon is concerned, gives new meaning to the expression Canada Dry.

Ironically, the Royal Box was a veritable gallery of British sporting celebrity, and one which positively dripped with the gold of winners. Notably, that was because of the presence of Olympians Sir Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell. But there were also to be seen, amongst others, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Gary Lineker and Sir Bobby Robson, whichserved to accentuate the absence - with that one honourable exception - of home interest.

In that context Working Titles Films' production of Wimbledon, shot here, in part, this week, with the storyline a British player who becomes the first home-grown champion since Fred Perry in 1936 was a promising basis for a movie. A trifle wacky, but it couldwork. The problem is that Henman might just ruin it all by allowing fact to intrude on fiction.

The first set was the only one in which the Swede, who was experiencing the oppressive nature of Centre Court for the first occasion, sustained some interest in proceedings. Just briefly, in the sixth game, Soderling was emboldened by a degree of success. He produced a sublime backhand pass to break back, and at one stage, remarkably, even charged the net to good effect.

It induced the groans that accompany Henman on one of his periodic descents into error-mode, but it all appeared to go to the head of the Swede, perhaps believing that he was actually back in contention. Henman immediately broke back. "Go on, Tiger," bellowed a spectator to some amusement. He succeeded in precisely that, issuing something that sounded rather like a throaty roar as he did so.

The tiger made easy work of the rest; it was like hunting downa wounded gazelle. Maybe an answer to some of those sceptics who had questioned the potency of his challenge during a year when that much-debated shoulder and fatherhood, both of which he describes as "difficulties" (wife Lucy must be delighted with that) have interrupted his preparation.

As Ronnie Barker, also a guest of the Royal Box, might have concluded the evening: And it's goodnight from me. And it's a very good night from Tim.