Hype and feeble humour ad nauseam? Welcome to a British sporting summer

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The Independent Online

Some promises are just stupid. Having predicted with my usual uncanny clairvoyance that Tim Henman would fall to the Finn in the first round, I then changed my tune and vowed several times on Thursday that I'd run round the office naked if he was routed by the Russian in the second. The sports editor was expectant. "You can't be held to things that are illegal," I whimpered.

Having bottled out of that one, I wisely agreed to keep all my clothes on in the even unlikelier event of the world No 312 beating the 14th seed. When he did, it felt like a pivotal moment for British tennis. And the BBC did exactly what the experts warned them against: with the smoothness of a Dan Maskell commentary, they transferred the weight of a nation's expectations from Henman's shoulders to Andrew Murray's.

The process began on Tuesday, after he'd beaten Georg Bastl. In the highlights, John Inverdale read out a slavering press quote which referred to it as the most impressive Wimbledon debut by a Brit, but John McEnroe was dismissive. "It's not saying a whole lot," he warned. Tracy Austin, the Burn-Out Queen, counselled caution. "Let him improve," she said.

At the end of the credits they depicted a sign bearing the words, "Murray Field (formerly known as Henman Hill)". They liked the joke so much they repeated it, with variations, for the rest of the week. After Thursday's highlights it was, "Henman Hill: Sale agreed. Murray Field: New owner", while at the beginning of Wednesday's show it was "Rusedski Ridge" and "Sherwood Forest." How we laughed.

We can't get by without a few Henman-style volleys at the BBC for their whole treatment of the accursed promontory: the mindless interviews with the fanatical-for-a-fortnight, that arch tone imported from those tongue-in-cheek regional TV news reports - and to cap it all Andrew Castle, shouting above the cheers as they clocked themselves on the big screen: "The sound of the British sporting summer - come on Tim!" I don't know about you, if you saw it, but on the sports desk we all threw up.

Otherwise, between matches, it was mostly The Murray Thing. On Thursday afternoon, before the lad had even played his second-round tie, Jimmy Connors was metaphorically laying a cool, damp cloth across "Giggling" Sue Barker's fevered brow. She wondered if Murray could become a great player, but Connors was in hold-your-horses mode.

"'Great' is a very loose word in sport," he said. "There's time for him to run out and prove it, and then run into that word." Connors ran into that sentence like he used to run around court, but you knew what he meant.

Comparisons are fatuous but irresistible, and because Henman is on the slide, he suffers by them all. He walks round the court, for example, like a straight bloke in a gay pub walking up to the bar to get the drinks in. Manly, very manly. But Murray carries himself with the swagger of a Glaswegian protestant who's just decided that his mission in life is to walk into a Celtic pub and sing "The Sash My Father Wore".

And though nobody's saying Henman's a tennis eunuch - he can pull a £6.8m-sized wad from his pocket and imitate Harry Enfield in answer to that one - Murray seems to have the real cojones a champion needs packed in his shorts. Look at the keepy-uppy in the warm-up, the fire in the eyes, the celebrations. Henman's fist-pump was a bit naff; this boy celebrates like he's just scored the winner in the Cup final.

"You're talking about not building him up too much," said Pat Cash on the highlights. "It's too late for that." Inverdale, to his credit, was wise to the hype. "Before we self-combust about Andrew Murray," he said, "let's not forget Rafael Nadal - he's only a few months older and he's already a Grand Slam champion."

That was at Roland Garros, where the furthest Henman went was the semis last year, which sounds all too familiar. As he was losing on Thursday, Pat Cash on Radio 5 was asking for e-mails suggesting what Henman might do with the rest of his life. On TV, though he said some nice things, in the end he was damning: "On the forehand, he just doesn't have the power any more."

Boris Becker, whose hair displayed a predictable reaction to his being plugged into the mains underneath the desk, thought Henman would stick around a while - though "he's got to improve" if he doesn't want to have to slum it down the rankings.

The hunger, however strong, eventually dissipates. As Connors put it to Barker, between her great guffawing waves of hysterical, jaw-dislocating laughter: "You [not Barker, obviously] have a family, the bank account's looking good, and then you see youth trying to come up and take your place. So you either stand up and fight or you go away."

I reckon the former, but although Connors also said some nice things, the old slugger came through, and as he spoke of his prescription for a newer, better Henman, he had imaginary Tim in a larynx-crushing throat lock.

"I would take Tim and shake him a little bit," he said. "Shake some life into him, get a little enthusiasm and excitement going for him." Maybe that is Henman's problem. This week at least, it certainly isn't Murray's. And that's the naked truth.

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