US Open preview: Last hurrah as British 'Tiger' climbs down from top of hill

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The Independent Online

Tim Henman's decision to call it a day was taken, without doubt, a touch belatedly, but there can be no argument that the man who for a decade was Britain's lone hero and hope of Wimbledon glory has retained an acute sense of timing about themanner of his departure.

Fate has engineered the perfect curtain call next month, a Davis Cup tie on the lawns of the All England Club, when nostalgia and affection will be measured by the bucketful. The only pity is that, as so often at the world's high temple of tennis, Tim could depart on a losing note, against Croatia, Davis Cup winners in 2005 and boasting three men in the world's top 40.

Henman, who will be 33 in 11 days and is due to become a father for the third time next month, was offered the perfect exit at this year's Wimbledon, with Henman Hill roaring away and the BBC in paroxysms of delight as "Tiger Tim" (surely one of the great sporting misnomers of all time) lifted a soggy tournament by defeating CarlosMoya 13-11 in the fifth set of a cliffhanger stretching over two days before exiting to a second Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez, in another five-set thriller.

Reruns of his acknowledgement to the Centre Court crowd that day show clearly that he, at least, thought he might never be back at Wimbledon. He had also officially retired from the Davis Cup last year, only to be tempted back by new captain John Lloyd.

Perhaps mercifully, what Tim achieves at the US Open, which begins tomorrow, is irrelevant. His first opponent, Dmitry Tursunov, is as formidable as he is familiar, having won five of their six matches, including victories at Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Australian Open.

Henman, once as high as four in the rankings and in the top 15 for seven straight years from 1998 to 2004, has slipped to 92nd after a season which brought just three wins on the men's tour (against 11 losses), and defeat by Tursunov would pitch him outside the top 100. Definitely time to go, then, pursued by TV's dismissal as "the nearly man of British tennis". He was far from that. It was deep personal misfortune that his peak years coincided with the decade of two grass-court giants, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, but he takes deserved pride from four Wimbledon semi-finals and four quarter-finals in nine years.

As he says, "I was probably good enough to win it, but on given occasions there were people better than me". If he was no tiger in the shape of a Jimmy Connors, more closely resembling in style and modesty Stefan Edberg, Henman was only one potent weapon short of the armoury which would have won Wimbledon, for instance in the 2001 semi-finals, when Goran Ivanisevic was indisputably saved by rain before uncorking the sort of mighty serve which would have made such a difference to Henman over the years.

The tribute paid to him by Paul Hutchins, the LTA's head of men's tennis, says it all, praising his "style, talent, sportsmanship and graciousness" as well as his fighting ability. Henman summed himself up thus in New York on Thursday: "I was a good player who worked hard and gave everything to his profession, and I don't think you can ask for more than that."

Henman's excellence, combined with that of Greg Rusedski, has brought no obvious benefit to British tennis a decade on other than the emergence of another single talent, Andy Murray. It threatens to be a bleak US Open, where Rusedski was runner-up in 1997, since Murray's physical condition (knee as well as the infamous wrist) is still in question amid reports that his coach, Brad Gilbert, has demanded flat-out commitment after Murray – seeded 19th – flew home last week for a further scan and medical advice.

In the real world of the US Open, the achievement section, Federer is pursuing his 12th Grand Slam and his fourth title there in succession, which would be a modern-era record, surpassed only by Bill Tilden's six (1920-25) when the Open was called the US Championships. Though Federer, scheduled to clash with the 2003 winner, Andy Roddick, as early as the quarter-finals, is clear favourite, he has (by his exalted standards) wobbled a bit in recent weeks, which will offer hope to his perennial pursuer, Rafael Nadal, as well as the fast-rising Novak Djokovic.

The likeable Serb gave clear indication of his class by beating Roddick, Nadal and Federer in succession two weeks ago in Montreal, and is fulfilling the sort of expectations that Britain nurses for his friend Murray.

In the women's draw, the holder, Maria Sharapova, buoyed by recent tournament success in San Diego, will be cheered by the fact that most of her closest challengers, the top-seeded Justine Henin, Serena and Venus Williams and Serbia's Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, are in the other half of the draw.

Watch Henman and Murray at the US Open on Sky Sports and Eurosport, starting tomorrow

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