Henman can take pride from honourable defeat

It is not Tim Henman's fault he is the patron saint of the English middle class or that for nearly two weeks the BBC in all its forms has stopped just short of filing canonisation papers to the Vatican. Nor is he to blame for being about as hip as your local guitar-playing curate.

It is not Tim Henman's fault he is the patron saint of the English middle class or that for nearly two weeks the BBC in all its forms has stopped just short of filing canonisation papers to the Vatican. Nor is he to blame for being about as hip as your local guitar-playing curate.

Henman should commend himself to every Englishman - as he plainly did for many French at Roland Garros yesterday - not for what he is thought to represent but for what he does.

It is to make a lost cause both intriguing and inspiring. As anyone who knew anything about tennis would tell you yesterday, Henman had about as much chance of beating Guillermo Coria on the red clay of Paris as England's overstated football prima donnas have of winning the European Championship in Portugal. But Henman doesn't do overstatement. What he does is go to the very limits of his ability.

He does it at Wimbledon every year. He suffers the yearnings of an unrealistic sporting nation, and each time it is the same mannerly Tim, the same fighter who takes us deep into the second week of a tournament he carries in some ways rather like a 10-stone weakling labouring at the docks.

Henman in Paris has been a different and even more brilliant story, however. It has been about a 29-year-old who will just not bow to the inevitable categorising of the game loser. Deep down, Henman rejects that idea that his destiny is to show how to lose with nobility and good manners. He is sneered at for his mechanical gestures of self-motivation, even his origins in genteel Oxfordshire. He doesn't carry the crowd with the rawness of his passion because what well-bred young English could hope to do that?

That's the terrain of the wild-eyed Croat Goran Ivanisevic, who routinely discusses life with the strangers who pop into his brain at moments of extreme pressure - or reflection - and the hell-raiser John McEnroe, who said he would make his commentary while standing on his head if Henman made it through to the French Open final on a surface completely incompatible to his fast-court game. If demons knocked on Henman's door he would politely ask them to leave.

And then he would proceed to battle against the barriers to success which have never had anything to do with limitations of the spirit. In this yesterday was maybe his finest moment. Coria flitted across the shale like some kind of wood sprite, quick and nervy and weighed down at times by the sheer relentlessness of Henman's ambition.

Even when the crisis for the Argentinian had appeared to pass, as he surged into a streak of beautifully controlled play that brought 13 games in an unbroken stream, Henman still hung on to the belief that he could stage one of the great upsets in the history of tennis. Twice he has made the Wimbledon semi-finals with his classic serve-and-volley game, but always he was confronted by the harsh reality of someone with greater depths of talent on the other side of the net.

While he was doing this, the idea that one day he would battle to the equivalent stage of the French Open would have been greeted as some ultimate sporting fantasy... a bit like Frank Bruno out-jabbing Muhammad Ali or Henry Cooper's eyebrows surviving a headbutt by Mike Tyson. Now, after coming so close to reaching the French final, Henman will reappear at the old jousting ground in South West London with a new and more buoyant aura.

It will be of the hometown boy who branched out and made a mark in the wider world. No, he didn't win but for two weeks he scared the pants off the masters of the slow court game, the feinters and the touch players and the subtle lobbers for whom the game is as much geometry as raw action. McEnroe stifled his usual levity in the broadcasting booth yesterday to pay tribute to the scale of Henman's endeavour and there had to be much more than a suspicion that he was going deeper than playing to the home audience. The sense was of respect for the extent of Henman's achievement in exploring some uncharted tennis territory for himself and perhaps a new generation of players no longer governed by the old rules of separation.

Will Henman's Paris experience make him a more formidable Wimbledon competitor? The hunch must be that it will make him a more confident performer and less the prisoner of the national obsession that he has to win in the two weeks that each year are earmarked for his personal glory.

In recent years there has been a feeling that Henman had indeed explored every ounce of his native ability; that he was inevitably on the other side of the hill as new young gunslingers rode into town. His defeat by Ivanisevic a few years ago, after it seemed he had him at his mercy, was supposed to be the final, diminishing blow. He was not supposed to come back from that. He was supposed to meekly accept his fate. To go quietly with the natural dignity of the better class of Englishman. Instead, for two weeks he threatened to win the French Open.

It has been something in which to take quiet but heartfelt pride. After he lost yesterday, he shook his head and said it was the kind of thing that happened in sport. There could be no more honourable witness to the fact.

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
VIDEO
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit