Henman the grass master serves notice of unfinished business at Wimbledon

The former British No 1 is fired up for his home tournament and, he tells Paul Newman, is intent on contesting the final
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Four years ago Tim Henman was ranked No 4 in the world. Today he is No 62. He has won 11 titles in his career but the last was three years ago. His 2005 campaign was ruined by a back condition which left him in pain and unable to play his best tennis. In a sport where a 20-year-old, Rafael Nadal, has just retained his French Open title and a 24-year-old, Roger Federer, will be seeking a fourth successive Wimbledon crown, he is one of the elder statesmen at 31. For years Henman headed for Wimbledon as one of the leading contenders to lift the famous trophy - he was seeded sixth as recently as last year - but he will go to the All England Club next week unseeded.

Yet mention his Wimbledon chances to the former British No 1 and you will hear a man fired up by the prospect of playing at his favourite event and convinced that he still has it in him to make a mark at the Grand Slam tournament where he has enjoyed most success. Nobody in the world can match his consistency at Wimbledon over the past 10 years, during which time he has reached four quarter-finals and four semi-finals. Added to his semi-final appearances in 2004 at both the French and US Opens, it is arguably the best record of any current player who has not won a Grand Slam title.

"There's no reason why I can't play as well as I have in the past," Henman said. "There are aspects of my game that are now much better than when I was getting into Grand Slam semi-finals. My serve is much better and I'm physically much stronger than I've ever been. Could I get to a semi-final again? Yes. And if I can get to the semis, why not get to the final? I think I could. And if you're in the final who knows what's going to happen? It's something I'm passionate about and that I would love to do."

Not so long ago those comments might have been dismissed as the optimistic thoughts of a man raging against the dying of the light. If Wimbledon last summer seemed to represent a changing in the guard of British tennis, as Henman fell at the second hurdle to the unheralded Dmitry Tursunov while Andy Murray pushed David Nalbandian to five sets in the third round, there were those who wondered how long the older man would go on after his young pretender beat him in Basle in the autumn.

Henman, however, always retained his self-belief and his fortunes have taken a turn for the better since February, when he reached the semi-finals of an indoor tournament in Zagreb. In the Masters Series event in Miami he recorded successive victories over Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt - beating the latter for the first time at the ninth attempt - and a solid clay-court campaign was followed by an excellent first outing of the year on grass at Queen's Club last week, which saw his ranking improve by 14 places this week.

In reaching the semi-finals of the Stella Artois Championships Henman won four consecutive matches for the first time since the 2004 US Open. He might have done even better had he not been rattled by some poor line calls when he lost to the tournament's eventual winner, Hewitt. Henman served consistently well, cut down on his forehand errors, volleyed as beautifully as ever and displayed a convincing mastery of modern grass-court tennis with his shot selection and rationed approaches to the net.

While Henman is benefiting from the input of his coach, Paul Annacone, the man who has been an even greater influence in his recent turnaround has been Jean-Pierre Bruyère, a French doctor employed by the Lawn Tennis Association to work with Britain's leading players. Aware of the back problems that had been pulling Henman down since the summer of 2004, Bruyère took Henman to the Dijon University's sports science department at the end of last year. "We did physical testing for two days," Henman said. "They analyse your whole body there and they were able to identify strengths, weaknesses and imbalances. It's helped me enormously."

As a result of the findings, Henman changed both his service action and his training regime. He has done more work with weights in the gym, targeting specific areas of his legs and upper body, in order to strengthen what was identified as a weakness in his back.

"I'm now feeling much better on the court. Things just weren't happening for me in 2005. It just wasn't possible then with the way that I felt physically. With all that I've gone through I'm now very much aware of how well I'm playing, how good my training has been. I do feel that everything has been moving in the right direction for me. The one major problem is that my body doesn't recover in the way it used to. If I have a five-set match and have to play the next day, it's hard for me. But there's no reason why I can't have some of my best results yet.

"Last year was a big disappointment. I didn't really realise it at the time, but my back wasn't good and it was starting to have a big impact on what I was doing. I wasn't training in the way that I would have liked and I felt that 2004 had caught up with me. I felt mentally exhausted and I didn't have the same energy coming into Wimbledon. I was frustrated with the courts and the balls and I didn't do myself any favours. Taking that into consideration, I did well to beat [Jarkko] Nieminen in the first round. To lose to Tursunov in the second round was massively disappointing, but I can't say it was a big surprise.

"I didn't feel intimidated by the prospect of Wimbledon, I never do. I regard it as my home tournament and it's played such a huge part in my career. I'm disappointed not to have won the tournament, but I've had so much fun there. Winning so many matches there and being part of such an incredible atmosphere made it all the worse last year, because I just wasn't enjoying it. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again this year. That's not why I play the game and for that to happen on Centre Court at Wimbledon was pretty depressing."

Does he think this might be his last Wimbledon? "No. I don't think that way at all. There's no doubt that I now work much harder off the court than I've ever done and if I was still having problems with my back and not making much progress on the court I'm sure I'd be thinking: 'How much longer can I keep putting in all this work without getting any reward?'

"I felt that I turned the corner earlier this year and for many weeks now I've felt good about my game. People have been saying for the last five years that this will be Andre Agassi's last Wimbledon, but I'd be surprised if he thinks, even at 36, that this year will be his last Wimbledon. I'm not saying I'm going to be playing as long as that but I definitely think I have a few more Wimbledons in me."

British summers will not be the same when we are not asking whether Henman will win Wimbledon. Does Henman himself think his career will be judged according to whether or not he lifts the All England Club trophy?

"Probably, yes. Do I think that's right? Probably not. But when I look at the biggest matches I've played I don't really have any complaints. I feel that I played some really good tennis and I came up short. You then have to ask yourself the question why that was and I say: 'Well, maybe they were better than me.'

"I've lost Grand Slam semi-finals to [Pete] Sampras twice, to Hewitt, to Federer, to [Goran] Ivanisevic and to [Guillermo] Coria. Maybe they were just better than me. Sometimes you have to accept that and I think sometimes other people don't accept that. They look for other answers that just aren't there."

Comments