Henman can put pride back in Britain

Hopes of home success in men's singles are far from fanciful as women's champion enjoys return to scene of last year's fairy-tale
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The Independent Online

Inspired by the wondrous exploits of Jennifer Capriati, we skip towards the All England Club today filled with romantic notions of magical story-lines. Such moods have been known to end in tears, and, in your correspondent's case, questions concerning the leaving of senses.

Of all the possible punchlines, none could be more appealing to long-suffering home supporters than the crowning of a British men's singles champion, an event that belongs in the realm of fantasy tennis.

Wimbledon have already turned the clock back this year, with play on the Centre Court and No 1 Court starting at 1pm instead of 2pm (noon on the outside courts). It only remains for Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski to find the means to whisk a return to 1936 and reprise Fred Perry.

Winning seven matches, each over the best of five sets, is a difficult assignment, particularly in a world where thinking beyond the next match is almost a criminal offence. It is a tall order even for Pete Sampras, who has won his last 53 matches on Wimbledon's lawns, and also for Andre Agassi, who triumphed here in 1992, never mind Henman and Rusedski, who have yet to see their name engraved on a Grand Slam singles trophy. But it is the ultimate achievement of their sport, one to which they have dedicated their careers. And it is attainable.

Henman, 26, and Rusedski, 27, have reached a watershed in the men's game: a point where the great names, Sampras and Agassi, while making the most of the twilight of their careers, may soon be usurped by a younger group, as demonstrated by Marat Safin, of Russia, at last year's US Open.

The British pair are edging beyond middle-age as tennis players, and need to make a decisive strike for glory before they, too, are overwhelmed on the lawns by time and fresh new talent, contenders such as Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, who are still in the process of finding their feet on grass.

Others, such as Lleyton Hewitt, the champion at Queen's Club for the past two years, already have impressive grass-court credentials, playing attacking tennis from the baseline, as did Bjorn Borg, as does Agassi (significantly, perhaps, Hewitt is only one cut away from shaving his head).

Nor is it wise to overlook Hewitt's experienced compatriot Pat Rafter, an athletic serve-volleyer who came agonisingly close to unseating Sampras in last year's final and has the game and the desire to add Wimbledon to his two US Open titles before his shoulder gives out.

But the "two Englishmen", as Sampras referred recently to Henman, Oxfordshire's finest, and the Canadian-born Rusedski, come into the championships injury-free and with confidence in their ability on the sport's fastest surface.

Both have flaws, of course. Henman is prone to the odd lapse in his service game, which opponents watch for and pounce upon, and his forehand is liable to flap under pressure. Rusedski's serve is not as fearsome as it was, having undergone technical changes as part of a rebuilding process to conserve his ailing body, and he lacks Henman's groundstroke skills.

The unseeded Rusedski would seem to be safer in the early rounds, but Sampras is likely to loom large should either of the leading Britons advance to the sharp end of the tournament – Henman in the quarter-finals, Rusedski in the semi-finals.

Fantasy tennis would produce the dream ticket of a Henman-Rusedski semi-final with the guarantee of the first British men's singles finalist since 1938, when Bunny Austin bowed to the Grand Slam-bound American Don Budge.

Should Henman and Rusedski reach the duelling field, both will have so much going for them that it could come down to the best marksman winning on the day. Given that one or the other may not survive that long, Henman is my selection.

Fanciful stuff, but there is no better time for optimism than when wandering round the Wimbledon grounds on a glorious mid-summer's day. (My bank manager, however, would not forgive me if I neglected to add that I would not bet a bean against Sampras, or against a Sampras-Agassi final).

Other romantics would happily settle for Sampras versus Agassi, or a re-run of Sampras versus Rafter, but with a daylight finish and a different twist in the ending.

The feisty Hewitt's emergence as a Grand Slam champion would be greeted as a refreshing change – and what a time the tabloids would have if Hewitt and his girlfriend, Kim Clijsters, provided a story along the lines of Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert in the 1970s.

Capriati's quest for the Grand Slam, 10 years on from her appearance in the Wimbledon semi-finals as a 15-year-old, having eliminated Martina Navratilova in the quarters, is the dominating feature of the women's singles. But other possibilities would tempt the pen of a Hans Andersen, if not the brothers Grimm.

How about a Williams sisters' final, no holds barred? Or the renaissance of Heidi, aka Martina Hingis, the revenge of a world No 1 trampled by giants? Hingis may be turn out to be the chief beneficiary of the hype surrounding Capriati and the Williams sisters, although Lindsay Davenport's week in Eastbourne seems to have worked wonders. So how about a Hingis-Davenport final, a meeting of seeds one or two who may feel they have been overlooked in the rush for headlines, even though Anna Kournikova is not on the scene.

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