Tim Henman: Great British hope finds clarity to finally conquer Wimbledon

John Roberts interviews

Another opportunity to win the big one. Tim Henman smiled, as he does every time your correspondent broaches the subject of Fred Perry, 1936 and all that.

Another opportunity to win the big one. Tim Henman smiled, as he does every time your correspondent broaches the subject of Fred Perry, 1936 and all that.

"I've always believed that I can win Wimbledon one day," the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire said. "People outside the tennis fraternity must be getting pretty bored of it. But from my point of view, I reflect on a couple of things. I reflect on the way that I've played there in the last two years. Certainly in 2002 I felt it was the worst I'd played there in six years. I still made the semis. Last year I had so little preparation, and I was in the quarters. And now, 2004, the way that my game has improved in the last seven months, I couldn't be more excited, because I think there's been a really big change. That's exciting for me, for my career in general, but certainly for Wimbledon."

We shall begin to judge that next week, when Henman, who surpassed the wildest expectations by reaching the semi-finals of the French Open on the clay of Paris, opens his latest campaign at the All England Club against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, of Spain.

"When I break my game down," Henman reasoned, "I think my serve is probably one of the most important factors, and I think Paul [Annacone, his coach, who formerly advised the great Pete Sampras], has helped me so much in the mental aspects. There have been a couple of really simple adjustments technically, but now I'm serving much more aggressively.

"On clay, it's a real test. If you're going to serve and volley on second serve on clay, you've got to be doing it well, and I think that's given me a lot more options. Then you take that to grass, and I feel very confident."

Even before Henman's right shoulder gave way in August 2001, resulting in surgery three months later, he had reduced the pace on his serve in favour of placement and consistency. Last summer his opponents were able to take liberties with their returns and passing shots.

"I think that's probably fair comment," he agreed. "And I think when you're talking about a Slam - best of five set matches over two weeks, and you've got to be able to stand up to the line and get cheap points - that wasn't happening. It was a difficult period. I obviously reflect on it, but I don't regret it for two reasons. The work that I put in technically to improve my serve helped enormously, but my mindset was wrong. I wasn't being aggressive enough. Now I feel my serve is a much better shot, technically, but I also have a different mindset: I'm going after it so much more. And I think that's the combination that can win me Wimbledon.

"In this day and age you've got to serve big, and I think I'm in a position to do that, because my serve's much more consistent. I look forward to seeing how much it's improved over the last 12 months."

Conversely, players return better nowadays. "Yes. There's all this talk about the technology and how it's speeded up the game. If you give [Mark] Philippoussis a wooden racket, he'll still serve pretty much just as hard. But on the return of serve, if you have a wooden racket, you have to hit it right in the middle, otherwise the ball will just roll off your racket and on the floor. Now, with the big-headed rackets, if guys are getting their racket on the ball it's coming back with interest. That's part of the evolution of the game.

"I think that grass court tennis has changed. Before, it used to be about who was going to serve the most aces. The court's bouncing a lot higher, the balls are heavier and a lot slower, so you've got to be able to adapt a lot. As I've said before, if you take [Pete] Sampras out of the equation, my record on grass is as good as anyone's."

Does he keep in touch with Sampras, who retired last year with a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles to his name, seven of them from Wimbledon, where he defeated Henman in two of the British No 1's four semi-finals?

"Yes, I still speak to him from time to time. We saw each other in Indian Wells. And, definitely, Paul's experience and his outlook on the game is absolutely ideal for me and my style. He helps me in all areas that can help in very small quantities, but at the end of the day it's very much down to me. I'm the one that's going to win it."

Does he ever talk tennis technique with Sampras? "Not really. It's more, 'How's the golf?' and the usual small talk. But if ever I felt that I wanted to then I'm sure the lines of communication are open. I think that's where I've benefited from having Paul on board, because he's got so much experience and relates to my style of play very well."

Henman's conversion with Paul began when he telephoned Annacone for advice en route to his first Masters Series win at the Paris indoor tournament at the end of October last year.

"I've spoken to him for the last seven or eight years, and obviously practised a lot with Pete, and we became really good friends. He's said small things from time to time, as I think anyone does at the Slams. But it was just after I'd lost to [David] Nalbandian in Basle. I played really badly. My attitude, and my demeanour, and my game plan, were really poor. I was disillusioned with the way I was playing and what I was trying to do on the court.

"I wasn't putting Paul on the spot, but, as a friend who I really respect, I wanted to hear what he really thought, positive and negative. It was a really interesting conversation, and we spoke for a considerable amount of time. There's very few people I'd do that with. I took what he said on board. I didn't speak to him again until I won my first round and was then going to play [Sébastien] Grosjean, who's a guy who's difficult for me to play against. I'd had those difficult matches at Queen's and Wimbledon.

"So I rang Paul up and said, 'I hope you don't mind me asking, but what do you think about me playing Grosjean? Is there anything that stands out?' He just gave me a couple of basic ideas to think about and work with, and I really felt that they helped me. I didn't speak to him before I played 'Guga' [Gustavo Kuerten], and then I spoke to him before the final, and maybe one other time as well, and it was important.

"Then the season finished, and that was the time I had to decide what I wanted. I'd had a coach full-time, and I'd been without a coach, and it was about talking and trying to find the right balance. I eventually spoke to Paul later on in November, or the beginning of December. We sat down and talked about what each of us was looking for, and it's gone from there."

It suits Henman and Annacone to work together on a part-time basis, as Henman did previously with Larry Stefanki, another American.

"I'm not the type of person that really needs a coach travelling with me all the time. Certainly I've still got so much to learn, and that's why I want input. I think it's a really good balance we've got, for both of us. Paul doesn't want to travel 35 weeks a year, and I don't want him there. It's something that we're both happy with.

"Trying to explain what has happened with me in the last seven months or so, I would say it has something to do with self-confidence. But that would imply that I wasn't self-confident before. I've always had a lot of confidence in my ability, but I feel that my attitude and demeanour and the clarity in my mind off the court is something that has really changed.

"Like in Monaco, where I could be so relaxed while competing so hard. It's a very good combination, because I think that's the way I am, and that's how I'm going to play my best tennis. I'm doing that, and therefore my results are better.

"I very much felt - and probably you [press] guys agreed with me - that a couple of years ago at Wimbledon there was a lot of talk about whether I needed to show more emotion and get the crowd into it. And yes, it worked, and my results are good. But when you think about how many times I've really got fired up on the court in the last six months, you could count it on one hand.

"Fundamentally, you want to be enjoying it and having fun out there, and when I'm doing that then I'm playing good tennis, I'm winning, and that makes it even more enjoyable.

"In the past I've been a little bit guilty of trying too hard, wanting to win so badly that it's probably inhibited me a little bit. It's like self-inflicted pressure. I know that when I'm on the court I'm going to give one hundred per cent from the first point to the last. That's never going to change. It's just a case of finding the right balance. For me, being bit more relaxed and having a little fun out there is the right one."

Has he ever been "in the zone" in a match, that state where everything seems to go right and nothing wrong?

"I don't think it happens to many sportsmen very often. It's a real quote-unquote, isn't it? You're 'in the zone' when your mind is very clear, you're making good decisions, your shot selection is right, and you're executing your shots very well. You're just confident. Sport at this level is so much about confidence.

"A lot of the time it's the simple things: you're hitting your backhand well cross-court, you're opening up the down-the-line, you hit the down-the-line well, you get a short forehand, you come in, you hit a good approach shot, and you put the volley away. It's not altogether the most complicated of things, but you're just doing them very, very well.

"You could relate that to any sport. You could say in football, you keep possession, you pass to your own player and you move forward, you get an opportunity, the guy hits the target, and he scores. In golf, you hit a good drive, you keep it on the fairway, you knock it on the green and you knock the putt in. It's not that complicated."

Many people are surprised how well Henman is able to deal with the expectation and media attention at Wimbledon. Some players find it hard to play well in their home Grand Slam tournament, notably the French at Roland Garros and the Australians at Melbourne Park, where Lleyton Hewitt and Philippoussis have not progressed beyond the fourth round.

"I can't really put my finger on why," Henman said, "but you've got to be pretty strong-willed to be able to block things out and just worry about what's going on on the court. I think over the years I've proved that. The atmosphere's phenomenal. That support has got me through plenty of matches where I haven't been playing my best. They've given me a lift and have definitely put extra pressure on my opponent."

Few players are as adept as Henman on grass courts. "There's an art of moving on grass, and some people are comfortable with that, some people aren't. I still think that on any surface if you've got a good attacking player playing a good baseline player, the attacking guy will win more often than not. On grass that's emphasised."

He is clearly determined to press home the point.

THE RECORD HENMAN AT WIMBLEDON

1994 (unseeded) first round: lost to Prinosil, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2

1995 (unseeded) second round: bt Wekesa, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4; lost to Sampras (2), 6-2, 6-3, 7-6.

1996 (unseeded) quarter final: bt Kafelnikov (5), 7-6, 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5; Sapsford, 6-1, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1; Milligan, 6-1, 6-3, 6-4; Gustafsson, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6; lost to T Martin (13), 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

1997 (seeded 14) quarter final: bt Nestor, 7-6, 6-1, 6-4; Golmard, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3; Krajicek (4) 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4; lost to Stich, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

1998 (seeded 12) semi-final: bt Novak, 7-6, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-2; Nainken, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2; B Black, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5; Rafter (6), 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2; Korda (3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; lost to Sampras (1), 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.

1999 (seeded 6) semi-final: bt Di Pasquale, 6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 7-6; Woodruff, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6; Grosjean, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2; Courier, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7, 9-7; Pioline, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3; lost to Sampras (1), 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

2000 (seeded 8) fourth round: bt Srichaphan, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3; Clement, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4; Arazi, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3; lost to Philippoussis (10), 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.

2001 (seeded 6) semi-final: Derespasko, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1; M Lee, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4; Schalken, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3; T Martin, 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Federer, 7-5, 7-6, 2-6, 7-6; lost to Ivanisevic, 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3.

2002 (seeded 4) semi-final: bt Bachelot, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2; Draper, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3; Ferreira, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1; Kratochvil, 7-6, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Sa, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3; lost to Hewitt (1), 7-5, 6-1, 7-5.

2003 (seeded 10) quarter-final: bt Zib, 6-2, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1; Llodra, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3; Soderling, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4; Nalbandian (6), 6-2, 5-7, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2; lost to Grosjean (13), 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Opponents' seeding in brackets.

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