Henman ready to fire as Pistol Pete drops guard

The champion has this aura at Wimbledon. Players crumble at the very sight of him. But one man won't this time
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The Independent Online

Never mind all the doubters who are saying he has a tough draw. Tim Henman, Britain's No 1, can win Wimbledon. My feeling is that this is the year he will do it. The fact that Tim is due to face the seven-time champion, Pete Sampras, as early as the quarter-finals will be a bonus rather than a hurdle in my opinion, though first of all he has to get that far, since he has a nasty early section of the draw.

I don't like the look of his possible third-round opponent, the big Dutchman Sjeng Schalken. He's a dangerous player. The likelihood of a fourth round against Jan-Michael Gambill does not appeal either, since the American is a high-quality grass-court player. But the way Henners must be looking at it, he has been to the quarters and semis at Wimbledon before, so now he has to think only of one thing, winning the tournament itself.

Since he is going to have to beat Sampras to do that, why not meet him in the quarter-finals rather than at the later stages, when Pete is at his most dangerous? By the end, Sampras, a great match player, is likely to be at his best because he has been there so many times. There would be a huge difference about walking on court to play him in the quarters rather than the semis or the final.

Even though I don't like the look of Schalken and Gambill, they would be good matches for Tim to play before coming up against Sampras. If he had had a cakewalk draw against a succession of clay courters, he would have to go up too big a level when he faces Pete. This way he will be match tight – if he gets that far – though there is no doubt in my mind he will do it.

One reason is that there is just the odd sign that Sampras is on the wane. The obvious comparison is with a boxer. He is a champion and you don't see any difference. Then, all of a sudden, they deteriorate, they get old in one fight. Not that, at the age of 29, Sampras is old in terms of years. But in tennis terms he certainly is. One of these days, as Pete himself was pointing out in these pages last week, the bubble is going to burst and he is going to lose it. It will only be a fraction. Perhaps he will go to serve at 4-4 in the fifth set and, rather than send down a second serve bomb, he will hesitate, take the pace off it and get passed, or serve a double. And that could be the whole difference. This may seem an over-simplification but I know Pete is thinking that way, too. First of all, there is the wear and tear of years on the circuit. Last year he was hunting for the record of 13 Grand Slams. That record is achieved now, so his motivation cannot be as high. He insists he is eager, and I'm sure he is, but not to the level of a year ago. He only has to weaken a tiny fraction at this level, that's all it takes.

Sampras has always had this aura about him at Wimbledon, where the opposition tends to crumble at the very sight of him. But the top four or five guys are not likely to crumble this time. I think they have started to scent that the end is coming, that there is a weakness there now which didn't previously exist. That will be enough to encourage them to lift their own game higher.

Henman came close when they met in the 1999 semi-finals. Since then Tim has without doubt got better as a match player, but I don't believe Sampras is better than he was, no way. I think he is just hanging on, so this could be a wonderful chance for Tim.

If he did beat Sampras there would still be Andre Agassi or Pat Rafter to get past on the other side of the draw before he could win it. One is a counter-puncher, the other an out-and-out attacker. The biggest threat would be Agassi, but I am not sure Andre is going to find it easy to get past the first round against Peter Wessels. That's a perilous one for him.

In Rafter's case, there is always a question mark about his shoulder. As Pat says, it could go at any time and this could be his last Wimbledon. Pat's problem is that he blew his big chance in last year's final. In my opinion, a Rafter-Henman final would go Tim's way.

There is a lot of talk about the weight of expectation on Henman's shoulders. That's true, but he carries it well because he is still young enough at 26 not to let it get to him. Maybe if he still hasn't won Wimbledon by 29 or 30 he might start to doubt he has it in him but the next three years will provide a huge opportunity. Sampras and Agassi can't go on for ever and Rafter looks like he's not going to. So the opportunities will get bigger, not smaller. Tim won't panic, he's not the sort to worry.

Nor will it matter to him that he is playing this year without a coach. That will be no handicap whatsoever. The only thing you need at Wimbledon is a good support system to help with minor things and he has plenty of people around him to call on if he needs to.

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