Wimbledon dream fades as Henman hints at retirement

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The Independent Online

Henman was so disappointed with his performances during the first seven months of the year that he admitted to wondering if his career had "burned out after all the years". He hoped, however, to reignite his form and desire.

Yesterday, he said: "I have belief in my qualities as a player and expect the results to come. But if I'm doing the right things in practice after a month or three months of things not happening, a player does question himself."

This is the closest the British No 1 has come to suggesting that he will end his competitive career. Having retired from Britain's Davis Cup team this year, he was hoping to concentrate his energies on tournaments on the ATP Tour and make the most of the time left to him at the top of the game.

His campaign at the US Open was hampered by his back problems - two degenerating discs in the lower back - but he returned to England determined to prepare himself for Bangkok and the forthcoming Masters Series events in Madrid and Paris.

"Earlier this year I was not enjoying my tennis for the first time," he said. "I desperately want to put that right."

He added that he was excited about the work he was putting in, "to kick-start me for 2006. I want to finish this year strongly."

After a splendid season in 2004, in which he reached the semi-finals at the French Open and the US Open for the first time, Henman's results have failed to live up to his own high standards this year and his ranking is now outside the world's top 20. When he arrived at Wimbledon in June, he was hoping that he would be able to erase the ominous feelings he was having about his career. But he was defeated in the second round of the tournament by Dmitry Tursunov, of Russia. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old Andy Murray, of Scotland, made his mark by advancing to the third round at his first attempt.

While praising Murray's talent and potential, Henman remained confident that his own fortunes would pick up. So far this has not happened.

Henman, unlike Murray, was a typical British late developer. He did not emerge into the spotlight until he was 20, but was then able to improve his serve-volley game to the point of becoming the nation's most successful male player since Fred Perry in the late 1930s.

"Henmania" quickly became part of British tennis lore as Henman proved himself capable of thrilling home crowds on the lawns of SW19.

He has reached the semi-finals four times, and was unfortunate to miss the final in 2001 when beaten by rain delays and the ambition of Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, who went on to win the title after having to rely on a wild card for the tournament.

Henman's most impressive result on the ATP Tour was in winning the Paris Masters in 2003. To do so he had to defeat players such as Sebastian Grosjean, the Frenchman who had beaten him at both Queen's and Wimbledon that year, Gustavo Kuerten, the former French Open champion, Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion and the American, Andy Roddick.

Federer, the world No 1, who helped Switzerland to a 2-0 lead against Britain yesterday after the opening day of the Davis Cup world group qualifying round in Geneva, said that he could understand Henman's decision to concentrate on the Tour at this stage in his career.

Henman, although not tempted to return to the team in order to challenge Federer in Geneva, has not ruled out the possibility of being closely involved with the British game in future. "I can see myself being captain in a few years," he said.

Having been Britain's leading player for the last decade, Henman can empathise with young Murray as the Scot begins to make progress in the world game.

"The bar of expectation is going higher and higher for Andy," he said, "and it should, because he's a class player. But he must be focused on what he's doing. He has an edge to him, which is good."

He added, however: "But there's a fine line. He must concentrate on what he wants to achieve and not on what is written about him."

Having for years suffered the indignity of being classed by many as an under-achiever for failing to win Wimbledon, Henman knows what he's talking about. The hope is that he will return to his favourite courts for a last hoorah.