We can't produce champions - never have and never will

Has the Henman dream died? Three tennis experts offer their forthright views on the enduring British debate
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The Independent Online

Has Tim Henman's last chance of winning the Wimbledon singles title realistically gone?

Tony Pickard (former coach of Stefan Edberg and ex-captain of Britain's Davis Cup team): I would say it has. All the boys now are in their early twenties, and he is pushing 30. He is still possibly the best volleyer in the world, but that doesn't mean that gives him the right to win the tournament. It's the same old thing, if he was to have any chance he would have to have a fantastic draw and a lot of luck, but he had that this time. The age gap becomes too big.

John Barrett (BBC commentator and former Davis Cup captain): No, because he is still improving and still has a chance to win. But he is going to have to be fortunate to get the right draw in future years. The truth is that there are several players now better than he is on grass, including Andy Roddick, Sébastien Grosjean and Roger Federer, of course. There are also dangerous players like Mario Ancic. If they are having a good day and Tim is having a bad one, they can beat him. He has to be at his absolute peak, as he was against Mark Philippoussis.

Jeremy Bates (British Davis Cup captain): I don't think Tim's last chance has gone. Arguably he is at a stage where he is coming into a stronger position in a lot of ways. He showed that at the French Open, for instance. Obviously there aren't a lot of opportunities left, but I don't think for a minute he has had his last chance. In some ways he is likely to be more effective when least expected to be.

What is missing from Henman's game and his gameplan?

Pickard: I don't think there is anything missing from his game. He can do everything required of a professional tennis player. But the other day against Ancic in the quarter-finals I am not so sure there was a gameplan, and it was pretty obvious to me that Ancic's coach, Rohan Goetske, had done his homework on Tim. Tim never changed anything. That's OK if you are on a clay court, but on grass you are able to change. To me, he looked as though he didn't arrive that day.

Barrett: What is missing from his game is one killer shot. I describe Tim as a first-class lightweight. When everything is going well, because he is such a good volleyer on grass, he can achieve things when at his peak.But it is a tough ask for seven matches at Wimbledon.

Bates: If you are talking in terms of forehands and backhands, I don't think there is anything which is particularly missing. Tim is very competent all round. If you had to pick something, it would be to see an extra five per cent improvement on everything he does, more on the serve than anything else. Even though he serves 112 miles an hour on a regular basis, what would really help him would be the ability to serve at his best nearly all the time, when he would be nigh-on unstoppable.

Why can countries like Croatia produce the potential champions and we can't?

Pickard: One has to be sensible and realistic. Ancic isn't a champion yet. The old Yugoslavia produced a lot of good players, but Goran Ivanisevic was the only one to win a Slam. Henman has been four in the world rankings, and that's a pretty high position to hold. From a professional tennis point of view, we have produced a quality player. Just because he hasn't won Wimbledon he shouldn't be called terrible names. It's like all the stuff we are hearing now about Russia. Of all the men coming out of Russia, only Yevgeny Kafelnikov won two Slams and Marat Safin one. And look how many people have actually won Wimbledon. You only remember the ones that won it. The hype and expectation are beyond sensible levels.

Barrett: No country produces any champions. Champions produce themselves, and it doesn't matter where they come from. One day another Fred Perry will happen here, though it hasn't happened yet unfortunately.

Bates: It is an age-old argument whether champions are born or made. In my opinion, champions are born, not products of a system, but what you do have through systems is strength in depth. When that happens, you are more likely to have people who move higher and higher up the rankings. But if you look at great champions, like Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis, they have been exceptional from a very early age.

What should Britain do to arrest the decline of the game here?

Pickard: The question we really have to ask is: why do we really only have two players on the tour? There are lots of grass-root things in place. We are great at producing kids of 15, but then they have to stand up and be looked at. We don't have the ideas to take them forward. So what's wrong? Until they get a proper career structure for coaches in this country we will always struggle. You can walk off the tour and suddenly become a coach.

Barrett: The Lawn Tennis Association are trying to do the right things at last, trying to grow the game in the inner cities and trying to get money from the government to build a lot more indoor courts. We already have a lot more than 15 years ago, but we still need a raft of indoor facilities. There is also the pyramid factor. You have to have more people playing and competing to force up the standard. The LTA can't just produce champions, never have and never will. All the good players in this country have produced themselves. But you have to have enough facilities in small areas, say Devizes, where the kid with absolute determination can have the opportunity to succeed.

Bates: The decline of the game is not confined to this country. If you look at participation figures throughout the world they have decreased vastly. The issue we are trying to address is that tennis is the fourth-best sport which interests people to take it up. We have to retain people in the sport and it is very important that clubs are attractive and that the game is fun for kids. We have to ensure tennis does appeal because there is such a vast array of other sports, video games and computers.