Tim Henman was once described as being the human equivalent of beige and is generally regarded as being one of the duller men on display on the professional tour. But deep within Mr Henman there is a showman desperate to break free and here, in the Big Apple, the showman got his moment in the spotlight. He beat Dmitry Tursunov 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach the second round of the US Open.
A season of defeats and disappointments have caused Henman to decide to walk off into retirement once the Davis Cup tie is done in September – but the Englishman saved his best for this match, beating the Russian over four fascinating and nerve-racking sets and taking two hours 44 minutes to do it. This was showtime indeed.
Of all the moments Henman could have picked to get the better of the dogged Tursunov, this had to be the sweetest. Their first competitive meeting came two years ago at Wimbledon when, over the course of five long and turbulent sets, the Russian ousted Henman from the second round. It was the moment that Henmania died. The devoted and the faithful would still come back to SW19 to cheer on their hero, but they would no longer believe he could win.
At the same time, one A Murray of Dunblane was making his first tilt for honours at the All England Club. A couple of hours after Henman's departure from Wimbledon 2005, Murray beat Radek Stepanek to become the only British man to reach the third round and to launch himself as the star of the future.
Tursunov is eight years younger than Henman, he is 10lb heavier – and all of that is muscle – and, sitting at No 27 in the world, he is 64 places higher in the world pecking order. He is nowhere near as talented as Britain's former national treasure but he is young enough and strong enough to make the most of what he has got. Regular poundings from such as Tursunov is exactly why Henman is calling it a day: because the best part about knocking your head against a brick wall is when it stops.
The Russian looks like an alarming cross between Jim Courier in his pomp (another redhead Henman beat only once) and a Red Army foot soldier from years gone by. On his day, he plays like them, too, leathering his forehand for all he is worth and rolling on towards the finish, crushing everything in his way.
This was Henman's very own and special brand of tennis. There was the serve that sometimes dug him out of trouble, there was the touch and the chutzpah on the volley and then there was the forehand that could either dazzle or depress. His career has been built on the sort of performances that have delighted the neutral observer, exhausted the devoted follower and gained the undying admiration of his peers.
Winning the first set gave the mainly pro-British crowd cause for hope but even then it was touch and go. For the two set points, there was one break point and more than a few anxious moments but, at last, Henman had his nose in front. It was not to be for long as he led his supporters in another merry dance – dropping the second set, winning the third, and then finally get to grips with the fourth – but it is the only way Henman knows how to play.
What has driven Henman from the sport, apart from a chronic back problem, is that he is a relic of a bygone age. The modern player is big, beefy and simple, hitting the ball hard and running until he drops. Henman's brand of touch, variety and finesse leaves him unprotected, as if he were taking on a Sherman tank with a rapier. It is a risky tactic to say the least, but with nothing to look forward to except years of playing golf and putting his feet up, he gave it one last shot.
If this was to be Henman's last match, he was determined to throw everything, including the kitchen sink at Tursunov. These days the plumbing may not be quite what it was, but at least the taps still work and, heaving that sink in the Russian's direction, he flung himself netwards at every opportunity.
For years, Henman has told anyone who would listen that he wanted to remain patient, build his points with care and pick his moments to attack. But less than four weeks away from hanging up his racket for good, he went for broke. Casting caution to the wind, he attacked whenever he got so much as a sniff of a chance and looked about five years younger.
In the end it came down to a matter of who cared more. And with the end of his career within touching distance, Henman simply wanted the win more. He has to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga next, another young and powerful man with little regard for the older generation's reputation. He beat Oscar Hernandez 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 yesterday. Tsonga, though, has spent the summer nursing a bad back and with Henman in his current mood, anything is possible. Provided his ageing joints do not seize up completely, it is showtime with Henman once again.Reuse content