The Monday Interview: Tim Henman: Henman's year of hard education

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The Independent Online
Tim Henman, who defeated Greg Rusedski to win the past two National Championships, defends his title at Telford this week.

But while Henman is stranded on the domestic front, Rusedski strides the world stage as one of the eight finalists in the ATP Tour Championship at Hannover. No hard feelings?

There was a scene from a Julie Andrews Show on television in which one of the female guests turned to the audience and said: "Isn't she just perfect? Isn't she doing a great job? Doesn't she make you sick?" As far as it is possible to discern, Tim Henman does not speak through clenched teeth when praising his rival Greg Rusedski.

"I think it's inevitable that people have paid less attention to what I've achieved because of the way Greg has played in the last six months," the 23-year-old from Oxford says. "And I think that's quite right, because he's played phenomenally well."

Well enough, indeed, to reach the final of the United States Open, to rise to No 4 in the world rankings and to become Britain's first representative at the ATP Tour Championship. Rusedski's endeavours have earned him the ITV Champion of British Sport Award. "I think he's got a good chance of winning the BBC one as well," Henman says.

No hint of rancour there. "I've had a very, very good year," he emphasises. "Obviously Greg's done even better, but that's not something that I'm worried about, because what I do is more important to me. I think it is very, very healthy. We both like to be ranked ahead, to be British No 1, but if we concentrate on our own results then what else happens will take care of itself.

"When Greg first came to this country a couple of years ago he was ranked a long way ahead of me. He was someone that I looked up to and wanted to try to overtake. He definitely played an important part in my improvement. And then when I overtook him, I broke down barriers, I broke into the top 20 for the first time, and I was the one setting the standards. Since Wimbledon, he's the one setting new goals, getting into the top 10, so I'm chasing him, if you like. We definitely feed off each other, and it benefits us both.''

The Davis Cup team-mates are easily distinguishable, and not only because one plays left-handed. Henman so obviously is English and the Canadian- born Rusedski so obviously is not.

Henman's tennis clothing sponsor, the German company Adidas, is running a dramatic television advertisement in which its client demolishes the perceived wisdom of 60-odd years that no Englishman can win any of the four Grand Slam championships of Wimbledon, the United States, France and Australia. The slogan "One Englishman begs to differ" would appear to place a good deal of pressure on Henman's shoulders.

"Yes," he acknowledges, "it's a statement, isn't it? And obviously if the commercial is about me I've got to believe what's said. No question, when you're talking about Grand Slams, they're the pinnacle of the game, and that's what I want to be winning. If I wasn't setting my standards to the very top, then that's not what would be said. I'm pleased to finish in the top 20 this year, because it's another step in the right direction. But that's not where I want to be at the pinnacle of my career.''

Perhaps British tennis has been self-effacing for too long? "Yes. We do want this, and I think to a certain extent we expect it. Before, it was great if we had some players winning rounds at Wimbledon. Now I've been in the quarters twice, Greg's been in the quarters once, he's made the 16s before. Quarter-finals is good at a Grand Slam, but I think we want to go farther.

"Greg's made the final of the US Open. So we keep improving. We keep setting our standards higher, so it's going to be an interesting next few years.''

For once, there is optimism in the British game. "A lot of optimism," Henman agrees, "but then, at the end of the day, there are really only two of us at the top of the game. Before, we were happy to have players in the top 150, and then inside the top 100. Now we've got two at the top end we want to set the standards even higher. We want to get more and more people in the top 100, and I think that is something that is going to happen.

"It's an exciting time for the players, it's a time when the LTA can take some credit for what they've introduced, the sort of structure they've set up in the game. From your point of view, John, it's probably much more fun to watch British players of all levels playing good tennis, winning matches, instead of having to write what's been written for so long - and quite rightly so - that `X played poorly' and, `This is another blow for the game' and, `We still have no players coming through'. I think it's much more fun for you guys if there's something positive to write about.''

But there he is, in Telford. "I suppose in a way it was something I was trying to avoid, because I'd have liked to have been playing at Hannover. But, not making that, I definitely wanted to support the event for one more year. To look at it honestly, I don't have a great deal to gain out of the event, but I think it is important to support the game. From another point of view, it's always a lot of fun. I see a lot of people that I don't get the chance to see throughout the year, and it's a pretty relaxed atmosphere for me. So I'm looking forward to a fun week, if you like.''

Henman won his first ATP Tour title in Sydney in January, his second in Tashkent in September, and in between rebuilt his confidence after surgery to remove foreign bodies from his right elbow.

"I think that pretty much sums up the year," he says. "I've played some great tennis. If I look at the highlights from a tennis point of view, the final in Doha was a great start, then to win my first title in Sydney. I made the final in Antwerp. The other plus is a quarter-final at Wimbledon, again. I started to pick my game up at the end of the States, won another title in Tashkent, and I've had some good results on the indoor circuit.

"I think then you look at it from a negative point of view - when I've played badly, I've played very badly this year. Losing early in Dubai, then having my elbow operation was a big setback. I didn't play well on the clay. I struggled coming into Wimbledon, but luckily was able to turn round my form. But I then struggled, beginning in the States, so it's been lots of ups and downs.

"Looking at it constructively, and the things David [Felgate, his coach] and I feel I need to improve on, if my overall performance is more consistent and of a higher standard then I really feel I'll be finishing 1998 much higher than 1997.''

The defeat at Wimbledon by Michael Stich, who was about to retire, was particularly disappointing, although the 1991 champion was capable of outwitting opponents on any surface. "Obviously I think the best grass court player is [Pete] Sampras," Henman says, "but as you say quite rightly, Stich is very, very talented and has obviously had good results on grass.

"I think I have to look at it from my point of view. I played very poorly. It was one of my poor performances of the year, and in the quarter-finals of a Slam that is disappointing, to say the least. You look at the other side of the coin, he is a good player and maybe he didn't allow me to play as well as I'd have liked. But I think a lot of times I have to just concentrate on what I'm doing.''

He has succeeded against some class opponents. "Yes, starting off the year beating [Goran] Ivanisevic and [Carlos] Moya in Sydney, then beating [Richard] Krajicek at Wimbledon and [Thomas] Muster at the US Open, I've had lots of very good wins. I really feel now it's my own pride of performance, my determination. I've got to eradicate the losses to [Martin] Sinner in Dubai or to [Davide] Scala in Rome. I think I'm at the stage where I'm too good for that to happen.''

On the other hand, he tends to have one or two dodgy games on his own serve. "I think that is a fair comment. Yes, there are times where I might play one bad service game a set. If you look at Sampras, he might play one slightly suspect service game every three sets. So to beat someone like that you've obviously got to be right on top of your game. I've basically got to get rid of that in my game so it makes me very difficult to beat.''

He has a good rapport with Sampras. "Very much so. If we're at the same tournament there's a good chance we'll be practising quite a few days, and we spend a little time off the court. We do get on very well, and obviously from a tennis point of view I don't think you can learn from anyone better.''

Henman has been likened to Sampras in style and presentation. "It's a nice comparison to have. From the point of view of my tennis game, I'd like to think we play a similar style. Obviously his is of a much higher level, and that's what I've got to work for and try and emulate, if you like. In my opinion I would say without doubt he's been the best player ever to play this game. He hasn't won the most Grand Slams yet. I think he will.''

Does the maestro make helpful comments when they practise together? "A little bit. He's never the type of guy that's going to come with different comments about every shot, but from time to time he'll say something, and I appreciate that obviously he's someone that you listen to.''

In the sport at large, Henman and Felgate do more than simply listen. Henman has become the European representative on the ATP Tour Players' Council, and his coach is a member of the ATP Tour Board.

"The opportunity arose," Henman says, "and my feelings were that I was pretty naive about the whole situation. I felt like I wasn't really aware of what was happening, and I thought if I want to find out what's going on to have an input, that's the best way to go about it. And it is. It's very interesting. There's some pretty lengthy meetings that probably go on a few hours more than you'd like, but there are so many interesting topics. Just to be a part of it and have an input is a lot of fun.

"It keeps your mind sharp. The way it works, we represent a group of players, so we'll sit down and have the meetings and we'll discuss different points, and then go back and speak to different players and get their opinions. It's something different. How long I'll do it for, I don't know, but it's been very interesting so far.

"If there was ever a time when it was taking up too much of my time, or was detracting from what I was trying to do on the court, I'd be the first to be out of there. But it has worked out very well so far.''

Consensus is the goal, but no doubt there are occasions when one Englishman begs to differ.