The making of Britain's man of steel

Tim Henman has a stubborn desire to be the best. Richard Edmondson met him
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The Independent Online
It was as unexpected as free strawberries. When Tim Henman became the first player to be disqualified from the Wimbledon championships 12 months ago, there was not a single person who emerged with the words, "I told you so". It was as if Mother Teresa had been caught shoplifting.

The incident, when a ball dispatched angrily by Henman hit the temple of a ball-girl, Caroline Hall, remains a small dinghy in an ocean of calm civility. Britain's No 1 reminded us of his Sunday School manners last week as he ensured a Briton was through to the fourth round of the men's tournament for the fifth year running.

It has not been easy to visualise Henman as someone who might formerly have been a mischievous youth - he probably collected things in his schoolboy days. This Wimbledon, Henman's gathering has been of victims, and, second match on Centre Court, another young man from a strong tennis family, Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, presents himself for inspection this afternoon.

Henman is 21, but you can get his age drastically wrong at both ends of the scale. It is difficult to picture his features without your mind colouring in a school cap and blazer. His face does not look as though it has been in contact with much shaving foam and his limbs still have the coltish quality of a body in transition. The words that come from this figure are strangely mature, however. Henman is unruffled in front of an audience and conveys the impression of a calculating, professional sportsman.

It was not easy to fillet any great self-revealing thoughts from Henman's press conferences last week. He seemed to be talking a lot, but in fact said very little. Politicians and captains of industry pay thousands of pounds to learn how to be so cleverly non-committal in front of camera. In addition, Henman does not appear to be a bloke who is free with secrets.

This is not to deny his pleasantness, however. As he relaxed near the All England Club yesterday, he was a paradigm of good nature. Only the occasional steely words and memory of the intense mask he wears on court gave him away. Henman is glacier cold and relentless in a way people from these islands are not used to. He will not depart with a smile on his face because, in the happy loser sense, he is not damn British. "I don't focus on the expectations now and I won't for the rest of my career," he said. "If you're out there on the court thinking about other things, you're in trouble. It may not seem as though I'm enjoying myself because in match situations you do have to concentrate. This is my occupation."

David Felgate, the former tour professional, understands Henman more than most. He is his coach, and both components of the team think the player is going places. "I know how good he could be and he knows how good he can be, but there is no point us shouting about it," Felgate said. "Tim is very receptive and he can be a little bit stubborn. A lot of the great champions have a bit of that. He doesn't let things go wrong for too long."

Henman's tennis is beautiful to watch, free swings devoid of the double- hand on either wing, yet the persistent view among the masses remains that he would be a better player if he picked up not a racket, but a Bullworker. Some will not be convinced until they see him on stage at Mr Universe. Henman himself admits further strength will come to his body. "Tennis is becoming a power sport so the physical side of things is becoming more important," he said. "It's on my list of priorities."

To suggest he is weak is palpable rot, however. Henman has already sent down the tournament's seventh-fastest recorded service (at 123mph) and those that criticise his physique are usually the same that trill about a rule revision to limit the power advantage of Ivanisevic and Stich, who are the same marque as the British man.

Henman's youthful shape has not been overlooked by others, as his sweating postman will testify, even if none of the 150 or so messages he has received in Wimbledon's first week have included the marriage proposals Chris Bailey was sent during his Wimbledon run a few years ago. Henman is not too despondent about this as he is rather happy as a single man following the termination of a recent relationship. "It's probably easier that way," he said. "One less thing to worry about."

For now most of the problems are of a culinary nature as he practises cordon noir in the two-bedroom flat in Chiswick he has inhabited since February. "It's all part of growing up," he said.