Tim Henman: Man with a mission
Tim Henman, who hopes his grass-roots scheme will unearth a future British champion, tells Amol Rajan about retirement, fatherhood and golf – and weighs up Andy Murray's chances of winning the big one
Saturday 20 June 2009
It is curious, given how affable he is in person, that public opinion on Tim Henman was so polarised in his years at the top of tennis.
For the fortnight of Wimbledon he would be feted as the very summit of English decency and pluck; but immediately upon his (often disappointingly early) exit from the tournament he would be scorned by pub experts as a naff Oxfordshire boy who should never have left school.
And so rather than be praised for his very respectable record in SW19, his failure to win there was interpreted as a defining example of English sporting mediocrity around the turn of the century. But speak to Henman and you find a man of dry humour at ease with the successes and failures of his career, and determined to improve the lot of young tennis players in Britain – especially those from poorer backgrounds.
"It's probably true that tennis is seen as a middle-class sport, and I guess I was part of that impression," says the 34-year-old. "In the past, a kind of stigma was there. 'It's not as cheap as football', people thought to themselves. And then the summer would come, Wimbledon would be on, and everybody picks a racquet and plays the game. There's so much interest in it, and people realise it doesn't cost a packet to play. We've got to do a lot to break down the barriers to entry and get kids in schools playing. And I want to devote time to that."
He has been promoting a new scheme, with the drinks company Robinsons, aimed at getting young people involved in the sport. When the tournament opens on Monday he and pop star Alesha Dixon will be rallying with lucky members of the traditionally long queue. "Alesha was fantastic," he says. "When we started working together she said she'd never played tennis in her life, but she's got amazing co-ordination and had me running around by the end."
These days Henman leads a life of blissful retirement. He lives just south of Oxford with his wife Lucy – who will soon be going back to work in television – and three daughters, Rosie, seven, Olivia, four and a half, and Grace, 20 months. He seems almost apologetic about the freedom he has. "I hardly do anything these days," he chuckles. "I seem to be going on a lot of skiing holidays, but being a father is the most important thing in my life. It does just change the way you think about things when you realise there are people whose interests come before your own."
What about the golf? Henman is widely reported to be a very steady hand on the fairway, and his partners over 18 holes are known to include Sam Torrance. "Oh yes, I do play a lot of golf. I play a bit with Sam too, who's great fun". And his handicap? "Oh, I play off about one at the moment."
Henman will be commentating again for the BBC at Wimbledon this year. Last year's final, in which his gasps of shock at the quality of the tennis could be heard every few seconds, was "the best match of tennis I ever saw". He was attacked by a few television critics as bland, but vying for the microphone with John McEnroe would leave most people susceptible to that accusation.
The task this year, as members of the public recognise, will be to keep tabs on Murraymania. "Andy's got a very good chance this year, as good as anyone beyond Federer." Including Novak Djokovic? "No I think actually he's pulled clear of Djokovic, who is a fantastic player, but I think Andy's got that No 3 slot to himself. He'll only get better too, which is the exciting thing about British tennis just now."
Henman, whose highest ranking was No 4 in the world, says he recognises how different a character Murray is to him. "I was never really into the fame game, and I don't think Andy is either. But he's a lot more volatile on court, which is absolutely fine because that's how he plays, working himself up. I was more reserved and calmer." Murray's game will get better naturally, Henman says, but there are a few tactical things he could do that would help him break into the seemingly impenetrable duopoly at the top of the game.
"Andy's got a brilliant mind on court. He could be more aggressive with his first serve, and give his opponent less opportunities with his second. Courts are slower at the moment, and the balls are bouncing higher, so he could be a bit more pro-active with his serving. Other than that, his game will just keep developing as his body does."
And is there just a hint of jealousy in Murray's assault on the title, and burgeoning popularity, just as Henman takes a back seat? "A lot of people ask me that. But you know one of my first tasks last year was interviewing Andy on the hill. I asked him if he thought Henman Hill would ever really be Murray Mountain and he said, 'No way, it'll stay yours for a long time'. I must say, I agree."
The Brit pack: Who to cheer (beyond Murray)
Age: 25. World ranking: 48
The only Briton apart from Andy Murray in the main draw by virtue of ranking. Broke into world's top 100 last year and has made steady progress since, reaching three Tour semi-finals this year.
Age: 25. World ranking: 105
Career has been dogged by illness and injury, but has a big game and can be a match for most on her day. Currently at highest place in rankings. Father Sergei played football for Dynamo Kiev, Ipswich and St Johnstone.
Age: 23. World ranking: 108
Reached world's top 200 three years ago and has made good progress in last 12 months after working on her fitness. Five previous appearances at Wimbledon, reaching second round two years ago.
Age: 23. World ranking: 130
Beat world No 14 Francesca Schiavone at Wimbledon in 2006. Big hitter who has been working hard to improve her movement. Qualified for 2009 Australian Open in January, losing to Marion Bartoli in the first round.
Age: 21. World ranking: 188
Making her Grand Slam debut. Reached career-high No 178 in world rankings last month thanks to good run of results, including a semi-final in Spain. Partners Laura Robson in the Wimbledon doubles.
Age: 15. World ranking: 484
Won junior Wimbledon last year and went on to make senior debut in autumn. Has concentrated on junior events and schoolwork in last six months. Lost in 2009 Australian Open junior final.
Age: 25. World ranking: 189
Has received wild cards at seven previous Wimbledons but lost in the first round every time. Has talent but usually freezes on the big occasion. Lost all seven of his live Davis Cup rubbers.
Age: 23. World ranking: 201
Qualified for both Wimbledon and US Open three years ago but has never fully lived up to early promise. Has not won a set in three previous Wimbledon main draw appearances.
Age: 22. World ranking: 224
Making Grand Slam debut. Broke into world's top 300 at end of last year and crowned further progress with victory in recent clay-court Challenger event in Sarasota, beating Australia's Carsten Ball in the final.
Age: 19. World ranking: 304
Birmingham-born teenager regarded as best British player in his age group. Won Challenger in Jersey in March, beating Alex Bogdanovic in semi-finals, and has reached two Futures semi-finals this year.
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