Tim Henman: The case for the prosecution

Dull, conformist, and badly read, too, 'Tiger Tim' - and his squealing fans - represent all the worst traits of the middle classes, says Terence Blacker

How best to take the temperature of your personality and reveal the kind of character you are? Some swear by the weirdly significant shapes and colours of the Rorschach test, others go for handwriting. For a few, it is the way a person makes love - busy or lazy, generous or selfish, startlingly original or one amorous cliché after another - that is the clincher.

How best to take the temperature of your personality and reveal the kind of character you are? Some swear by the weirdly significant shapes and colours of the Rorschach test, others go for handwriting. For a few, it is the way a person makes love - busy or lazy, generous or selfish, startlingly original or one amorous cliché after another - that is the clincher.

There is another, more useful test, and that concerns the kind of sport that genuinely engages your interest. Is it a team game or a solitary struggle? Does it involve dressing up and complicated equipment, cunning tactics, or a perfectly toned set of muscles? Is lonely dedication required, or simply the capacity to brutalise or humiliate a fellow-human being? From here, the true and ultimate test of self-discovery is to find out with which great sporting heroes you most closely identify.

Sometimes, self-knowledge can be a shock. A quiet, law-abiding citizen, I have been mildly dismayed to discover that it is bolshie outlaw types (Lester Piggott, Eric Cantona, the early Muhammad Ali) who appeal to me, while their thoroughly laudable and honourable counterparts (Coe, Lineker, Sampras, Faldo) simply bore me.

It was an embarrassing moment when, more recently, I realised that even bad guys that I do not particularly like - say, Dennis Wise, the scrappy, niggly and generally unwholesome Millwall midfielder and manager - more perfectly represent for me the heart, passion and colour of sport than a competitor who is more successful but whose every move exudes a good- hearted dullness.

Tim Henman, for example.

So, here is my confession: I freely admit that my dislike of Henman, Henmania and the fools on Henman Hill is 50 per cent, perhaps more, a result of my own prejudices. It is not dear old Tim's fault that he projects an irritatingly bland image that might be the result of ghastly genetic cross-cloning of John Major and Cliff Richard. Those head-prefect, going-into-the-family-business-in-Sunningdale looks are something with which he was born.

Nor is it mandatory that someone who is good at hitting a ball over a net should be bright or witty. Even the remark that Tim made to a TV interviewer, along the lines that he never read books because they were boring, had the virtue of a certain leaden honesty.

There is a class hang-up here, which is entirely my problem. Tennis may now be an acceptably groovy sport - Martin Amis plays it, Geoff Dyer is obsessed by it, so far as I know, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali might play doubles together - but somewhere, nagging me, is the conviction that not only has it failed to outgrow its origins as a nice, seemly game played at all the best weekend parties, but that it does not want to.

When upwardly mobile parents are looking for a respectable, socially useful sport for their floppy-haired offspring to learn, tennis is the obvious choice. As a parent, I once went through that phase, joining a smart tennis club as a weekday member and occasionally enjoying a game with my son, who would have been about 10 at the time. On one occasion, it was noticed that my son's T-shirt was not white, thus apparently offending the club's dress code, and I received a formal warning as to future conduct from a bronzed, dead-eyed type in his twenties. My son and I took to playing on municipal courts after that, but somehow, the game had lost its appeal.

I would be the first to admit that this small social humiliation has warped my view of the sport, at least in its English context, but it has helped me to understand why so many children on these islands mysteriously feel alienated from the game in a way that the young of other nationalities do not; why, apart from Henman, only a Canadian represents our country at the highest level. English tennis still bears the faintest taint of snobbery to it, an unspoken social exclusiveness that is evident only in a few sports - notably, polo and golf.

When the English national football team wins, it is a victory for England; when Tim Henman wins, it is a triumph for Middle England, that place of well-tended lawns and solid Home Counties values. Take a look at the squealing supporters who queue overnight to get on to the court where their man in playing at Wimbledon, with their Union flag hats and little flags, who seem to have a polite orgasm every time he wins a point. No one, in all honesty, could say that they are a cross-section of the nation.

What they are cheering is more than just an unusually successful British sportsman; it is a version of Englishness. Their suburban form of patriotism, also on show at the last night of the Proms, is trim, well-spoken and profoundly conventional, in the manner treasured and nurtured by minor public schools.

Many would argue that there is nothing wrong with that aspect of our country being represented on a court or on a pitch, but the problem is that the unthinking snobbery that it represents is contagious. What was interesting about Henman's goofily unthinking remark about the boringness of books was not that he made it in front of millions of TV viewers, but that no one, apart from a couple of columnists, even noticed.

It is worth comparing this attitude within the media and the public with that granted to David Beckham. Having a working-class accent, Beckham is assumed to be stupid, although few public figures have conducted themselves with more good sense and decency. Imagine the reaction - the cartoons, the comic routines, the huffing and puffing in opinion columns - if it had been Beckham who had said that books were boring.

In other words, a simple class formula is being applied. Tim talks like a businessman, so he must be bright and responsible; Becks talks like a brickie, so he must be thick and a potential yob.

Scarily, it is this England that presents itself to the world every time Henman succeeds in international competition. Modern tennis history has confirmed how perceived national characteristics are seen to be embodied in its stars - the stroppy American aggression of McEnroe, the brute effectiveness of the German Becker, the despairing elegance of France in Leconte. Surely it is undeniable that, with his rather boring manner of playing, his resolutely uncharismatic personality, his nice-but-dim interview manner, Henman represents the very aspect of the English persona that should now be played down.

It would be wrong to exaggerate. I would prefer Henman to win a game than some hairy, brilliant Argentine of whom I have never heard. I watch his matches - with the sound turned down, so that I do not have to endure those plaintive and oddly defeated cries of, "Come on, Tim!". But I long for him to find a new personality coach who will bring colour into his life.

Maybe he could have a drugs hassle like Greg, or a knee-trembler in a restaurant like Boris. Anything would do, so long as it dragged poor old Tim from the dreary purlieus of Middle England.

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