Henman feels at home in 'goldfish bowl'

British No 1 in relaxed mood despite lack of a coach as he sets sights on winning grass-court Grand Slam title
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Tim Henman was saying that Wimbledon seems to come round quicker and quicker. He added: "That's a sign of age, though, isn't it?" Or experience, your correspondent ventured. "Yes, let's go for experience," Henman agreed.

The 26-year-old from Oxfordshire is about to embark on his eighth Wimbledon campaign, and for the first time without his former coach, David Felgate; coachless, in fact.

Although Henman regards the All England Club as his second home, and has contested two semi-finals there against Pete Sampras, there must be times, such as now, when he feels that the walls are closing in on him.

"You can't deny the goldfish bowl syndrome," Henman said. "The spotlight is pretty much as intense as it can get. That is something you have to learn to deal with, otherwise it would affect your performance. Some people relish it, some people loathe it. I think your early performances set the tone. I look back to '96 and making my debut on Centre Court. I think that has certainly set the tone."

Unseeded five years ago, Henman played Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the fifth seed, in the first round. Kafelnikov recovered after losing the first two sets and held two match points at 5-3 in the fifth set. Henman, unfazed, served two aces to save himself and went on to win, 7-5.

"I still remember talking after the match about the knock-up against Kafelnikov," Henman said. "I went out there and I was really ready and I was excited about the match. I surprised myself how comfortable I felt during the knock-up. I was timing the ball great, I was moving well, and I literally didn't miss for five minutes. That's a great feeling to have. I broke him in the first game and immediately it didn't feel it was my first time out there."

An abiding memory of Henman's last appearance at Wimbledon, a five-set defeat by Australia's Mark Philippoussis, the No 10 seed, in the fourth round, is of the Briton smashing his racket against his right foot at the conclusion of the match. The gesture seemed symbolic: the angry destruction of a weapon for which he had no further use, accompanied by a vow to make better use of its replacement.

"That's certainly the way I approach it," Henman said. "There's always the question 'Is he running out of time?' and this and that. I'm probably reaching midway in my career. I've probably got another five or six years to go, and a lot of those years I'm going to be improving.

"You see these young guys coming up, and I think [Lleyton] Hewitt and [Marat] Safin, and whoever, they're great players. And then you make the comparison. On my 18th birthday I didn't have a professional ranking. Hewitt's been in the top 10. So there is no comparison.

"But will Hewitt, at 21, will he improve 100 spots? No, he won't, because it's impossible for him to do that. And that's why our careers are different, and that's why I'll keep improving for a good two, three or four more years.

"To use another example, how's [Andre] Agassi doing this year? He's 31, and he won the first three mandatory events this year, and he's been around for longer than anyone."

Agassi's career has passed through some fallow periods. "That's probably one of the reasons why he's playing so well now," Henman said. "He had a real down period where he was almost out of the game. I'm sure he didn't enjoy that, but he was able to recharge his batteries and remain fresh."

Henman's eight-year association with Felgate ended in April, on the eve of the clay-court season. A personal view was that both the player and the coach had at least avoided the risk of regretting, at the end of their careers, having stayed together too long, perhaps through loyalty, particularly if Henman finished without a Grand Slam singles title.

"But," Henman countered, "who would have known if I'd stayed with David whether I would have won a major? So then I would have stayed with David and then won a major, then everyone would have said that was the right decision."

As things stand, Henman and Felgate can say they did everything possible, including trying something new. "Exactly," Henman said. "Our relationship has always been under the microscope, and David has had more critics than most. Our lines of communication have always been open. That's what we've prided ourselves on. And we sat down and we came to the conclusion that it was time for a change. It caught a lot of people by surprise. The critics had to eat their words, because they certainly didn't predict that."

As Henman developed into the only English-born player of note on the ATP Tour, some in the media began to pillory Felgate in a manner familiar to many an England football manager.

"I know, yes," Henman said, laughing. "I thought you were going to say then is there going to be an uproar if I have a foreign coach. We'd never had an English player at the top of the game for years, certainly in the current era of the media and television. What goes hand-in-hand with a player is a coach, and all of a sudden there was another interesting story.

"Now that David is working with another player [Xavier Malisse of Belgium], I think finally people might actually give him some of the credit. The vast majority of the time in big tournaments, if I lost then David was the one who came under the microscope. But if ever I played well and had big wins, then it was always because I'm this good tennis player, it was nothing to do with my coach.

"The first year I lost in the semis to Sampras [1998], it was my first Grand Slam semi-final and I lost to the greatest grass-court player that's ever played, maybe the best player that's ever played this game. And still the next day it was: 'He's got to get a new coach'.

"I don't mean this disrespectfully to Malisse, but I'll be absolutely delighted if he has good results for David, because I think it will just show people out there that he's a really good coach."

Felgate's wife, Jan, organises Henman's business affairs on behalf of Mark McCormack's International Management Group. "Jan's been so professional about the whole issue," Henman said. "Jan always saw David's coaching job as one aspect and her management job as another. Even though they are husband and wife, the work they did for me was separate. That's why, as far as Jan's concerned, everything's the same as usual."

As for appointing a new coach, Henman is prepared to bide his time until he considers the right man is available. "I see other examples of how players have coaches for six weeks for the clay-court season or for the grass-court season, but that's not the way I am," he said. "If and when I get a new coach, it will be somebody to do the job full-time and somebody to do the job properly. I'm not in a mad rush. I'm enjoying the independence, if you like, and working a few things out for myself.

"The problem I will have if I don't get a coach is I won't be able to notice everything. It's difficult sometimes to notice something from within. It's sometimes easier to have a person looking from the outside into the match situation. There's no problem not having a coach for a period of time, but this game's hard enough without trying to do it on your own."

He is determined that any sensation of Wimbledon's walls closing in will be in the mind of his opponents. "Playing on Centre Court or Court One, you get such a buzz from the crowd that it gives you an extra percentage. It also puts your opponent under so much pressure, because he feels like 'I'm playing against this guy who plays really well on grass, but also I'm playing against 13,000 here'. It can be daunting for your opponent, so you feel like you're a break up in the first set before you start."

The difference between Wimbledon and certain other passionate tennis arenas is that the crowds at the All England Club have a reputation for supporting their favourites without being beastly to their opponents.

"It's cultured, isn't it?" Henman said. "My game suits grass, and the combination of my game and the crowd is tough to beat. That's why it's taken some good performances to beat me.

"Look at the players I've ended up losing to in the last six years: Sampras three times, [Todd] Martin, [Michael] Stich and Philippoussis.

"I feel that I owe it to the tournament and I owe it to myself to play some good matches and get my game on song."