Murray can be the main distraction

Countdown to Wimbledon: Henman's Stella fall a worry but he may be helped by a rising star
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The Independent Online

It was, for Tim Henman, merely an hour or so in the rehearsal room. The British No 1 was simply there to iron out minor problems with his lines and diction. Yet, when he stuttered and corpsed over his pre-Wimbledon performance on Friday afternoon here, defeated in straight sets by the Swede Thomas Johansson - the former Australian Open champion who the previous day had come so close to capitulating to the precociously gifted teenager Andrew Murray - it was inevitable that some prophets would regard those contrasting fortunes as a defining moment in British tennis.

A fading of the light, and the simultaneous bursting upon the scene of a bright new star? An intriguing symmetry, but decidedly premature. We may well have seen the future in the Dunblane 18-year-old whose presence in the firmament had scarcely required telescopes to witness his genesis; not since he secured last year's US Junior Open championship. But though the suspicion remains in some minds that Henman's Wimbledon opportunity has passed him by, most notably in 2001, you suspect that he remains as driven as ever by his desire to claim that elusive prize.

The stamping on the throat of a spare racket as he stalked past the umpire's chair at the Stella tournament was evidence of that. The grimace etched on his features after Johansson had won the game 6-4 6-4 confirmed it.

Professional sportsmen are apt to dismiss the significance of reverses such as Henman experienced here. He attributed defeat to the fact that his game plan hadn't been right for playing on grass, notwithstanding that this is his preferred surface. The message was emphatic: it'll be all right on Centre Court, or whichever court he is allocated, in eight days' time.

Henman maintained: "I feel very positive about the way that I can and will play. That's a big positive coming into Wimbledon this year, because on reflection, I don't really feel like I've played particularly well the last few years. But I feel much better about my game on the whole."

Andrew Castle, the former British No 1 and Davis Cup player, accepted that for Henman it had simply been a wretched day at the office. "I'd be very upset if he wasn't disappointed," he said. "It was a poor performance. He didn't show up at all. Any loss means that you experience self-doubt. You examine yourself. How come it has gone so bad? But then you settle down, sleep on it and put things into perspective, and realise that the sun has risen again the following day."

He added: "I genuinely think after 12 years here, and with two children at home, one of whom is only six months old, and coming off the best year of his career, he can feel at times that there are better places to be than a tennis court. We all have days like that. You switch the ignition on, the engine fires up and you're all ready to go but nothing happens."

Henman conceded himself after the French Open that he has not played well at Wimbledon for two years. But Castle maintained: "If he can hit his stride and get his first two or three matches out of the way and start to enjoy himself, he still must have a shout of winning the whole thing."

It would perhaps do him no harm at all if, during those early rounds, Murray provided a distraction, assuming that he suffers no further complications after being cleared for this week's Open at Nottingham from the ankle injury sustained against Johansson on Thursday when seemingly poised to progress to the quarter-finals - where he would have faced Henman, of all people.

In another sense, the mere fact that Murray and Henman are currently being spoken about in the same sentence may provide stimulation for the latter that Greg Rusedski rarely provides. For the moment, Henman acts as mentor to the Scot who made his Davis Cup debut against Israel in March, and who is tipped by Johansson to become at very least a top 50 player. Henman concurred, declaring: "I have absolute belief that he'll get into the top 50 and he can go further. There's going to be plenty of ups and downs, but he's got the tools to build with."

Castle added: "It's going to be a wonderful journey for him. It's quite a transition, coming from junior tennis to this. This guy has more weaponry and more substance to his game than I've seen for a long time. Physically, he's not quite ready yet, and he'll have to sort out his injury problems. But he gives off all the right vibes. His growth and journey have been handled well. That said, there's no guarantee he will be as good as Henman."

It is a point adopted by Boris Becker, who 20 years ago won here as a teenager before emerging as the first unseeded player to win Wimbledon. He counsels caution, and reminds those who may be tempted to indulge in hyperbole that Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick were all better at the same age. "It is only the beginning," he said. "Nothing else."

But as beginnings go, they do not come much more auspicious. Certainly, something for British tennis aficionados to relish in the years ahead.