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.

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