Henman inspired by the nation's expectations

'It would be understandable if somebody in my position was intimidated and inhibited by the pressure, but I've always thrived on it'
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The Independent Online

He looks so youthful that it seems impertinent to remind Tim Henman that he is approaching 29 and may soon be regarded as one of the old-timers of his sport, a Pete Sampras without portfolio.

Although the personable British No 1 has accomplished a good deal on the outskirts of the tournaments that really matter - the four Grand Slam Championships and, to a lesser extent, the nine ATP Masters Series events - he is perceived as either an underachiever or a man who has done as well as his limitations will allow.

British tennis observers who can relate to the era prior to 1995 will remember how Jeremy Bates used to transport their dreams to the second Monday at Wimbledon, but no farther. For those spectators, the advent of Henman, and Greg Rusedski, brought a golden, or gold-plated, age and inflated expectations.

"People," Henman says, "sometimes have slightly short-term memories and the bar that I am judged by unfortunately moves pretty regularly. That's good in a way, because I'm the one that's pushing that bar up. But if you were to go back six or seven years and say that you were going to have a guy who's been in four semi-finals at Wimbledon and has spent six years in the top 10 you'd probably have been accused of smoking something. It is frustrating, but when you are at the forefront of a sport you've got to be able to take the rough with the smooth. Sometimes the rough can be pretty rough, but that's the way it goes."

Since he left the Centre Court at the All England Club a year ago, well beaten by the Australian Lleyton Hewitt in the semi-finals, Henman has had to deal with a shoulder injury, a physical problem players dread.

Surgery in November last year delayed the start of his campaign this season, and he has made some adjustments. On the technical side, he realised that his first serve had become tentative over the past 12 months, partly because of the injury but also because he sought greater consistency, even at the expense of pace.

Before he could contemplate change, Henman needed to be convinced that the shoulder had healed. "In my first few tournaments back, it was a concern," he recalls. "Certainly, when I had a hiccup after Miami [in March], that was a worry, because something different was wrong with the shoulder. To tell you the truth, I think I slept on it badly and just got a lot of inflammation.

"In the first month when I was back playing, each time I'd throw the ball up to serve it was in the back of my mind, 'Is this next one going to hurt?' But I regained confidence in it."

Henman supporters must trust that a similar thought will not trouble him at the All England Club, given that he called the trainer to massage the shoulder during his semi-final defeat at Queen's by the Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean.

Even before that, a rumour was circulating to the effect that Henman was not expected to do particularly well at Wimbledon this time. "I think that possibly could help me," he says, "but there's always going to be pretty high expectations there because of my record."

On the four occasions he has advanced to the semi-finals, Henman has lost to the eventual champion. "It's a pretty minor consolation, to tell you the truth," he says. "Any time you lose it's disappointing. A lot of people focus on my record at Wimbledon, and I think it is a good one. But I tend to look at my record elsewhere, because I should do better at the other Slams. I've never been past the round of 16. If I can do better than that, it could improve my overall game and therefore help me at Wimbledon.

"I look back at the matches I've lost at Wimbledon, and how can I really complain about the outcome of those semi-finals? Sure, the Ivanisevic one is pretty unique, playing over three days, and I think I'm not the only person to agree that if it hadn't rained I would perhaps have gone on to win that match. But I lost to Sampras twice, and he's perhaps the greatest grass court player ever, and Hewitt, who was No 1 in the world. So I don't have too many complaints about my results at Wimbledon. I would have complaints with the other tournaments."

Henman was not at his best at Wimbledon last year. "It was the worst I've played there in six years," he acknowledges, "and I still made the semis. It wasn't that I wasn't enjoying it, because I always enjoy Wimbledon. But I would definitely say that the grass court no longer has been playing like a grass court, and I don't have an answer for that.

"The balls were very heavy, the courts were slow, the ball was bouncing very high, and I think that was highlighted by the quarter-final line-up [Hewitt v. Sjeng Schalken, Henman v. Andre Sa, Xavier Malisse v. Richard Krajicek, David Nalbandian v. Nicolas Lapentti]. Who would have predicted that? There were two genuine serve-and-volleyers in the quarter-finals.

"A fast, low-bouncing court is probably my ideal. A slow, high-bouncing court is not. But I still managed to find a way to get through to the semis.

"Sampras has got one of the best first serves in the game and, beyond doubt, the best second serve in the game. And yet he wasn't able to - or rather, in my opinion, he shouldn't have been trying to - serve and volley on both serves. The way these guys return, you're just not going to be able to do that. I think that's probably the reason Pete ended up losing [in the second round]," Henman suggests.

"When you look at the way the draw unfolded, you had two serve-and-volleyers - and I wasn't even serving and volleying on both serves - so there were two guys trying to get to the net, and six baseliners. That's where we go down another alley of whether the game has been slowed down too much."

A combination of the tougher rye grass now preferred by the All England Club, plus dry spring weather, produced courts that played truer, less likely to make the ball skid and shoot low, features that previously gave an advantage to serve-and-volleyers. The lawns at Queen's during the recent Stella Artois Championhips were also firm, and Henman, a finalist there in three of the previous four years, struggled to reach the last four. He admitted to second-guessing himself on whether to follow his serve to the net or stay on the baseline, and it was not until too late in his semi-final against Grosjean, a smart ground-stroker, that Henman decided to attack the net.

Does he intend to tread cautiously at Wimbledon? "I'm still trying to be aggressive and still trying to come forward, because my biggest strength is probably my net game," he says. "But you have to be very selective, because you know that if you don't come in on the right ball then you are going to see the ball go past you. It's not the best feeling, running in, thinking you've got a great chance on this point and seeing it go flying by you."

On a personal level, the past year has been a happy time for Henman and his wife, Lucy, highlighted by the birth of their daughter, Rosie.

"There's been a big contrast between my personal life and my professional life," Henman says. "Becoming a dad has been incredible and gets better and better every day. But professionally it's been a struggle. But I think it's inevitable, with the amount of tennis that we play, that you're going to have a few set-backs, a few bumps in the road from time to time, and hopefully I'm on the way out of this one."

Does he have his eye on a place in the final this time, perhaps even on winning the title, or does he take the view that he will have more Wimbledon appearances in the future and will simply do the best he can?

"I don't really know what the right answer is," he says. "I'm just working hard to regain confidence. I'm realistic. So far my year hasn't been ideal. At the same time, I think the confidence I get when I play at Wimbledon is going to be a major factor. Wimbledon lifts my game to a new level, and I can't wait for it to come round every year.

"This year's no different. I'll always go out there and do my best, and we'll just have to wait and see how good that can be."

Many people, particularly visitors from overseas, are surprised Henman appears not to be fazed by Wimbledon and the accompanying hysteria.

"I think it would be understandable if somebody in my position was intimidated and inhibited by the pressure and the expectations," he says, "but for some reason I've always thrived on it. I've always enjoyed the support that I get, and it's the place where I've played a lot of my best tennis.

"Henman Hill is probably the thing that I'm most proud of when I think that I was at Wimbledon as a five-year-old, and watching Borg play, and I went there every year, when I wasn't playing, and playing there the last few years. It seems like that name has stuck, and that hill's been named after me."

Having a hill is advantageous when your desire is to be king of all you survey.

HENMAN AT WIMBLEDON

1994 (unseeded) 1st round: lost to Prinosil, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

1995 (unseeded) 2nd round: bt Wekesa, 7-6, 6-0. 6-4, 6-4; lost to Sampras (2), 6-2, 6-3, 7-6.

1996 (unseeded) QF: bt Kafelnikov (5), 7-6, 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5; Sapsford, 6-1, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1; Milligan, 6-1, 6-3, 6-4; Gustafsson, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6; lost to T Martin (13), 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

1997 (seeded 14) QF: bt Nestor, 7-6, 6-1, 6-4; Golmard, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3; Haarhuis, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 14-12; Krajicek (4), 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4; lost to Stich, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

1998 (seeded 12) SF: bt Novak, 7-6, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-2; Nainken, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2; B Black, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5; Rafter (6), 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2; Korda (3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; lost to Sampras (1), 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.

1999 (seeded 6) SF: bt Di Pasquale, 6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 7-6; Woodruff, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6; Grosjean, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2; Courier, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7, 9-7; Pioline, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3; lost to Sampras (1), 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

2000 (seeded 8) 4th round: bt Srichaphan, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3; Clement, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4; Arazi, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3; lost to Philippoussis (10), 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.

2001 (seeded 6) SF: Derespasko, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1; M Lee, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4; Schalken, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3; T Martin, 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Federer, 7-5, 7-6, 2-6, 7-6; lost to Ivanisevic, 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3.

2002 (seeded 4) SF: bt Bachelot, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2; Draper, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3; Ferreira, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1; Kratochvil, 7-6, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Sa, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3; lost to Hewitt (1), 7-5, 6-1, 7-5.

Number of seeded opponents in brackets.

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