Henman needs to engage his mind

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The Independent Online

WITH REASON, Tim Henman's heads-down, hands-up misery at the US Open has provoked a tidal wave of sympathy-cum-apprehension at theLawn Tennis Association's headquarters in Baron's Court, especially since their prime ticket defined the problem as being between his ears.

WITH REASON, Tim Henman's heads-down, hands-up misery at the US Open has provoked a tidal wave of sympathy-cum-apprehension at theLawn Tennis Association's headquarters in Baron's Court, especially since their prime ticket defined the problem as being between his ears.

Jeremy Bates, who spent enough time as Britain's No 1 to be rendered stoop-shouldered from the crushing weight of expectation, thinks that,between his ears, Henman is preoccupied with his recently announced engagement to Lucy Heald. Bates, now the LTA director of men's training,was courtside at Flushing Meadow last Tuesday to witness the debacle and it was Tim's demeanour, rather than his play, which surprised him."There was a different air about him, his body language was different," said Bates. "It was something I hadn't seen in him before. If you getengaged it is a huge step and Tim needs to be honest with himself and admit that it's a bigger issue than he thinks.

"At Queen's Club and Wimbledon this summer he ran Pete Sampras, the world's best, very close. For someone to change as much as he has inthat short time, the one colossal difference is that he got engaged. I don't think he has a mental problem from a tennis point of view.

"Look at the history of these things. When I was close to getting married I had my best-ever year. When Chris Wilkinson's daughter was bornlast year he didn't win a match for six months. But if you deny it is affecting you, that's part of the problem. So admit that it is a big deal." It wasalso a big deal in the case of Andre Agassi.

Henman's physical appearance is what shocked Mark Cox, another former British No 1, when he ran into Tim not long after Wimbledon. "Ithought, 'goodness gracious'," said Cox. "His eyes were still in the back of his skull and he was pale and gaunt. Probably that Davis Cup againstthe United States and then Wimbledon took a heck of a lot out of him. He is almost in a rehabilitation phase from all of that, though he doesn'trealise it. But I would say it is just a temporary hiccup. Once Tim is fresh again he will have the resilience and spirit to win matches he is currentlylosing."

Britain's Davis Cup captain, David Lloyd, thinks things will get better once Henman is back under his wing for the tie against South Africa atBirmingham from 22 to 24 September. "Tennis is a very lonely game for most of the year," said Lloyd, "so the Davis Cup will be good for him.Perhaps he needs friends and a team spirit to shake him a bit. A team environment is a very good washing of the spirits. Things come out inconversation in a completely non-political way: 'Jesus, Tim, how the hell did you lose that match?'" Lloyd is surprised that Henman had identifiedthe problem as mental. "If anyone asked me what is Tim's strongest point I would say his mental side. I am surprised to hear he has been talkingto a sports psychologist. I am not a great believer in that, I have to say. You have to work it out yourself, you don't need a brain surgeon to tell youwhat's wrong."

It is Lloyd's opinion that, since Henman's surge up the rankings happened so quickly, a fall-back had to be expected at some stage. "But I don'tthink there is any long-term damage," he said. "It's just that Tim plays too much and when you do that you are going to have a bad day sometime.At Wimbledon he played worse than he did last year but still got to the semi-finals again. This year he won by knuckling down and that's themark of a good player."

Richard Lewis, the LTA director of professional tennis, was also in New York for Henman's match and agrees with the player's comment thateverything needs to be looked at: "His game, the way he organises his time, his schedules, everything. He has some soul-searching to do because Ithink he has a lot on his plate. It wasn't just his forehand and his serve which were the problem. He didn't think his way out of the match.

"One of the things Tim and David Felgate [his coach] need to decide on is a slightly fresher approach, if they stick together, to the way they goabout things. They need to talk a lot of things through, though there are no dramatic separation moves in the air so far as I am aware. But certainlya lot of soul-searching."

Lloyd feels the crisis is something Henman and Felgate must work out together and added: "When you get to Tim's standard the person you calla coach is more a friend and a mentor. You can't start learning shots at Tim's age. But it is a different matter if the coach does not have the balls tosay: 'You aren't doing so-and-so' because they are too close. David and Tim have done enormous things for each other and are both big enough tofeel if it's the right call to give [a separation] a try, they are professional enough not to hide it in a closet."

However, Bates does not think a change of coach would help. "Their relationship is very strong and Tim has just reached his highest careerranking. Maybe he hasn't played great the last few weeks but he was unbelievable in June and it's only September now. We had the samespeculation when Tim lost in the first round of the Australian Open last year. The first thing that happens is somebody asking 'Is it time to get ridof David?' I would be amazed if there was any problem between them. I think the relationship will hold fast for a long time."

Meantime, amid the soul-searching, Henman can look forward to some bonding among friends on Davis Cup duty.