Tim Henman: The case for the defence

Why do people sneer at Tim Henman? After all, he is our greatest tennis talent. The Independent's sports editor Paul Newman argues that they are, in fact, suffering from a peculiarly British form of self-loathing
Click to follow

In our office, it usually starts towards the end of the first week of Wimbledon, as people congregate around the television screens when he is playing. From the conversations you overhear, you would almost think that they were motor-sport fans secretly hoping to see a good old-fashioned crash:

In our office, it usually starts towards the end of the first week of Wimbledon, as people congregate around the television screens when he is playing. From the conversations you overhear, you would almost think that they were motor-sport fans secretly hoping to see a good old-fashioned crash:

"Well he hasn't played anybody any good yet," they say.

"The draw's fixed, of course, because they know he's the only Brit with any chance."

"And when he comes up against anybody really good he always loses. He'll probably go out in the semi-finals as usual. He's obviously never going to win Wimbledon."

"And he's so boring, isn't he? That stupid little clenched fist when he wins. And his boring middle-class parents and his expressionless wife in the crowd."

"Anyone know when Ivanisevic is playing next?"

Poor Tim Henman. What has he done to arouse such antagonism? While much of the country loves Tiger Tim, there are plenty of people out there who seem to despise him, even after his extraordinary performance in the French Open, when he swept aside opponents on his way to the semi-finals with a display of attacking tennis rarely seen on the slow red clay of Roland-Garros.

For a man who has carried British tennis for 10 years, and brought the country to life for a fortnight every summer; who has performed at the highest level for longer than the vast majority of his rivals, and generally behaved like a gentleman, it seems bizarre that he should draw such venom.

Henman, in some respects, is quintessentially British and quintessentially middle-class. He was raised in Oxfordshire, where he played on a tennis court in the garden with his parents and two brothers, no doubt dreaming of emulating his grandfather, Henry Billington, who played at Wimbledon. His rise to prominence came not as a result of a Lawn Tennis Association initiative, but through the traditional provincial tennis-club scene.

He has set up a charitable foundation; he says his happiest day was when he married Lucy, his English rose; they have a daughter Rose, and a black labrador Bonnie; Lucy has a horse called Stella. His greatest sporting inspiration was Nick Faldo, that dogged British pursuer of excellence.

Boring? Well, only as "boring" as the lives that the vast majority of us lead. This sneering at Henman smacks of a sneer at the sneerers' own middle-classness, a rather typically British form of self-loathing. We seem to prefer our heroes to be loud-mouthed brats who argue with officialdom, who lose their temper when they are beaten, who appear regularly in the news pages because of their wild social lives, and, of course, who wear baseball caps back to front. The idea of one of our own achieving success is, frankly, boring.

And when he wins, what does he do? He clenches his fist. Like most British males, Henman is uncomfortable with displays of emotion. He rarely smiles on court or plays to the crowd. There is none of the knees-bent arm-pumping that Boris Becker pioneered. No, the most we get is that clenched fist. You can be sure that inside he is feeling just as elated as the next shirt-throwing, net-vaulting winner; it is just not his way to show it.

The loathing towards Henman even extends towards his fans. Some football followers find it quite normal to see big tattooed men from Liverpool and Newcastle crying when their teams lose a football match, but are scathing when they see pictures of housewives from Guildford wearing Union-flag hats on Centre Court screaming, "Come on, Tim!".

Henman started Wimbledon as one of the favourites, although, ironically, his French Open exploits may count against him. In previous years, having been knocked out at Roland-Garros, Henman would usually have had a week's practice on grass, followed by a good week at Queen's Club in the major pre-Wimbledon tournament, followed by a further week of practice; instead, he's paying for his Paris exertions. He went out in the first round at Queen's and seemed to show some rustiness on grass when he played Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in the first round at Wimbledon on Tuesday.

While his record in the other Grand Slam tournaments, until Paris, has been indifferent, Henman's Wimbledon performances have been phenomenal. In the last eight years, he has reached the semi-finals four times, the quarter-finals three times, and the fourth round once. Nobody else comes near that level of consistency. His four semi-final defeats have all been to the eventual winner. Twice he lost to Pete Sampras, arguably the greatest grass-court player of all time.

There are some players, including clay-court specialists and crash-bang merchants who dominate on the quicker surfaces, who have Grand Slam triumphs on their CVs but who are not a patch on Henman in terms of style. There is no player in the world I would rather watch than Henman, who has just about everything: powerful ground strokes on either side, controlled overheads, great tactical awareness and, above all, a wonderful touch at the net. If you want to see the perfect volley, watch Henman.

Of course, he has weaknesses. He loses too often to opponents he should have on toast; when his serve goes wrong, he seems unable to correct it; and there are certain opponents who have his number - Lleyton Hewitt has seven wins out of seven against the British No 1.

Henman is a throwback to another era, when most of the world's best players were exponents of serve-and-volley tennis. As improved levels of fitness and racket technology have played into the baseliners' hands - they retrieve more volleys these days and have the weaponry to expose an opponent caught at the net - it takes a craftsman of Henman's volleying touch to withstand the barrage. In Paris, Juan Ignacio Chela, one of the world's best clay-court players, had clearly never experienced anything like it when Henman fended off his attempted passing shots with punched volleys, delicate drop shots and exquisite angles, often played at full stretch.

Can Henman cross the ultimate threshold and win one of the Grand Slam tournaments? It used to be said that he was a "bottler". He has lost more finals (16) than he has won (11), but think about those figures. To have reached 27 finals is in itself a fantastic achievement. In the last year, moreover, he has played some of the best tennis of his life. In winning the Paris Masters last November, he beat, among others, Federer, Roddick, Kuerten and Grosjean. Tennis is perhaps the most competitive of all individual sports, drawing players from around the world. The rising levels of fitness have also turned it into a young man's game, making Henman's longevity at 29, particularly after undergoing major shoulder surgery two winters ago, all the more remarkable.

Quite what British tennis will do without Tim Henman is hard to imagine. Rusedski is on the slide, and there's no one else here making any significant progress. We really should enjoy his tennis while we can.