Time running out for Henman

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So that's it for another year. In households up down the land, children will be putting their tennis rackets back in the store room. Tim Henman is no longer around to emulate. In spite of a wave of optimism, the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire is not going to win Wimbledon, any more than David Beckham will be lifting the silverware at Euro 2004.

So that's it for another year. In households up down the land, children will be putting their tennis rackets back in the store room. Tim Henman is no longer around to emulate. In spite of a wave of optimism, the 29-year-old from Oxfordshire is not going to win Wimbledon, any more than David Beckham will be lifting the silverware at Euro 2004.

As Henman suffered his latest setback yesterday, soundly beaten in the quarter-finals by Mario Ancic, a 20-year-old from Croatia, the land of Goran Ivanisevic, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2, he prepared himself for the type of recriminations that usually follow.

Having been unable to advance to a fifth semi-final in his quest to become the first Briton to win the men's singles title since Fred Perry in 1936, Henman was asked how his disappointment on this occasion compared with other years.

"It think it's worse, actually," he replied. "That's the honest answer." Will he ever lift the trophy? "It's a question I ask myself a lot," he admitted. "It's obviously a big talking point, given the nature of this environment and the tournament being in the UK and me really being the only player right now. I've never hidden behind the fact that this is the tournament I'd love to win the most. And the reality is that I don't have an endless number of years."

Henman knows that fingers will be pointing in his direction today, if only metaphorically, and that shoulders will be shrugged in dismay. Why does he always fall short on the road to glory? A more pertinent question will be raised by those who have observed his career at close quarters and are aware of the depth of talent in men's professional tennis. That question is this: How has Henman managed to go so far so often at Wimbledon, given the pressure that builds around him at this time every year? Each time Henman has lost in the semi-finals, his opponent - Pete Sampras, twice, Ivanisevic, and Lleyton Hewitt - has gone on to win the title.

As Henman approached this year's championships, seeded No 5, he was one of the favourites. Few players serve-and-volley, fewer still volley as well as Henman. Moreover, he was bringing with him 10 years of Wimbledon experience and a a far more aggressive game than when he lost to Sebastien Grosjean in the quarter-finals 12 months ago.

By the same token, it was acknowledged that while Henman was a better player than he was in June 2003, so, too, were his rivals: Roger Federer, the defending champion and world No 1, Andy Roddick, the US Open champion, and Lleyton Hewitt, the 2002 Wimbledon champion.

The notion that Henman would own Wimbledon once Sampras retired failed to take into account the fact that other talents have emerged and won major championships. Moreover, there is always an Ancic lurking in the draw. Although the 6ft 5in competitor from Split had not built rapidly on his first-round win against Federer in 2002, his talent was obvious, and he was maturing to the point where he would be able to take a contest against Henman in his stride.

Asked if his performance yesterday had lost the match or Ancic's form had won it, Henman did not hesitate. "He won it," he said. "That's what I believe." While it is true that Henman seemed flat yesterday, particularly in comparison to the first two sets he played against Mark Philippoussis, Ancic was inspired. He may not be able to repeat yesterday's form when he plays Roddick in the semi-finals tomorrow, but that cannot detract from his superiority in his first meeting with Henman.

Henman was asked why he did not vary his game by playing from the back of the court more often. "Because I didn't think that was the right tactic," he said. "I think it's ironic that suddenly, after today, people say, 'Perhaps you should have stayed back a bit more'. The first four match I played, all I've heard is, 'Oh, he stays back too much'. That just goes to show that you're not going to please everyone."

Paul Annacone, Henman's part-time coach, who used to advise Sampras, has encouraged Henman to play to his attacking strengths. With that in mind, Henman was able to win his biggest title, the Paris Masters, last October, defeating Grosjean, Gustavo Kuerten, Federer and Roddick en route.

Henman also adapted his attacking style to the slow clay courts at the French Open last month, and advanced to the first Grand Slam semi-final of his career outside Wimbledon. His progress was probably his most amazing achievement.

When he subsequently lost his opening match back on grass at the Stella Artois Championships, his supporters wondered if he had left his form and energy on the clay. The same point was raised yesterday.

"No," he said, "I don't think so at all. I think those types of performances are going to give one self-confidence. In a couple of weeks, when I move on from this and look at the progress I've made in in the last seven months, there will be some good things to think about. There's no question that my game has developed. But my focus of attention has very much been on this tournament. And that's why I say there's no consolation."

Henman will now do what he always does at this stage of he game. He will put his rackets away for a few days and devote time to his family. A few years ago, Henman did not have a daughter, Rosie, to dote on. His wife, Lucy, will also be relieved to have respite from the nerve-jangling ordeal of watching his matches, especially as she is pregnant with their second child.

Next June, Henman will return to the lawns, ready to take his supporters on another adventure. He will be approaching his 31st birthday by then. So, loath though your correspondent is to write this, yesterday may have signalled the end of a memorable era.


By Nick Harris

1994: 1st round

D Prinosil (Ger) 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2

The 19-year-old Henman, armed with a wild card, was drawn against David Prinosil, an older, better player. Henman's chances ballooned in the first set but burst over the next three.

1995: 2nd round

P Sampras (US) 6-2, 6-3, 7-6

Henman had the misfortune to meet Pete Sampras, who was looking to complete a hat-trick of wins in SW19. The first two sets were easy for Pistol Pete but Henman upped his game to earn a tie-break in the third. Sampras won it, but left deeming Henman "a guy with class".

1995: 2nd round

T Martin (US) 7-6, 7-6, 6-4

In Henman's big breakthrough tournament, he reached the quarter-finals for the first time. His match against Todd Martin, which was played as England lost to Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final, saw the American's class prevail against an impressive Henman in three tight sets.

1997: Quarter-final

M Stich (Ger) 6-3, 6-2, 6-4

The nation craved a Henman victory on the new No 1 Court, hoping it would lead to an all-British semi against Greg Rusedski. Henman gave a damp squib of a performance, losing in three to one of the great natural shotmakers. Rusedski also lost his own quarter-final.

1998: Semi-final

P Sampras (US) 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3

Another year, another step forward, with Henman reaching his first Grand Slam semi-final. The only problem was that Sampras stood in the way. Centre Court expected the American to win and he took the first set. But Henman played a brilliant second set and won it. A marvellous shock was on the cards. Then Sampras broke early in the third to regain control.

1999: Semi-final

P Sampras (US) 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4

The storyline differed from the previous year because Sampras had arrived in SW19 out of form and had not convinced. Henman took the first set. Thereafter Sampras played probably the best six - virtually faultless - sets of his life, beating Henman in four and taking the final in three.

2000: 4th round

M Philippoussis (Aus) 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4

Mark "Scud" Philippoussis raced away with the first set, but Henman fought back, eventually losing a nerve-jangling five-setter.

2001: Semi-final

G Ivanisevic (Croa) 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3

Henman looked set for victory when he won the third set 6-0 for a 2-1 lead. That was Friday. On Sunday, much rain later, a revitalised Ivanisevic won a fourth-set tie-breaker, then broke Henman's heart in the last.

2002: Semi-final

L Hewitt (Aus) 7-5, 6-1, 7-5

Henman performed brightly in two of the sets, but Lleyton Hewitt was magnesium on fire. The Australian was almost unplayable, lashing pinpoint winners to gasps of admiration. For the fourth time, Henman lost a semi to the eventual tournament winner.

2003 Quarter-final

S Grosjean (Fr) 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4

Henman's opponent, Sebastien Grosjean, had beaten him in the semis at Queen's a couple of weeks earlier, so revenge was supposedly on the cards. It didn't materialise, with the clever Grosjean picking Henman apart (and seeing him off) in four sets.