Unfortunately for Henman, who appears a well adjusted young man, there is very little chance he will be allowed to make steady progress

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A problem for up and comers in British sport is the amount of expectation that grows up quickly around them. No sooner is someone off and running than there is foolish talk about world beating potential.

It is a good time to latch on to this because, in accordance with a reliable chore of sports journalism, one I am not comfortable with, newspapers will soon be publishing the names of those who may come further to our attention in the not too distant future.

The safest of bets, our old friend the certainty, is that the rising star of British tennis, Tim Henman, will be among them. A sensible reaction to Henman's straight-sets defeat by Boris Becker in Germany last week was that it brought reality back to his prospects. My colleague, Simon O'Hagan, made a point of this when reporting the match for the Independent on Sunday and I wish others had followed his example.

Unfortunately for Henman, who appears to be a well-adjusted young man, there is very little chance that he will be allowed to make steady progress. The intense focus of media attention simply does not allow for it. With every step he takes, the burden of expectation increases.

In holding Becker to a tie-break in the first set, Henman gave a thoroughly creditable performance but doubtless his defeat gave rise to disappointment in the news rooms of television, radio and newspapers.

Because it is almost 60 years since Fred Perry became the last British player to win the Men's Singles at Wimbledon, and the story since has been one of disappointment, you may not find this suprising - but it serves to indicate how much pressure Henman, at 22, is sure to come under.

At this stage of Henman's development it is advisable, I think, to take note of what Becker, who won Wimbledon when four years younger, felt after coming up against him for the first time. "He's a player with a good future but who knows how far he is going to get?" the German said.

In the world of modern sport, potential can be as suspect as faith in a lottery ticket or a horse that is known to be a dodgy jumper. The truth, as Calvin Coolidge argued, is that nothing is more common than unsuccesful people with talent; another thing Coolidge said is that nothing matters more than persistence.

Incidentally, I once passed on Coolidge's remarks to a thoughtful football manager who had grown seriously frustrated with the attitude of his charges. He had the words typed out and put up in the dressing room. "Coolidge," one of the players said. "Who the hell did he manage?"

To get back on track, hyperbole has held back many sporting careers. Mindless comparison, an eagerly employed tool of newspapers and television, brings its own problems. For example, it is not that long since Dominic Cork was hailed as the new Ian Botham. This was as unfair on him as it was to hail Darren Gough as Fred Trueman's natural successor.

You can go on and on like this. Not so long ago, a problem for the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, was that people saw another George Best in Ryan Giggs, and reacted accordingly. The young Welshman appears to have handled this quite well, which says a lot about his upbringing at Old Trafford, and Ferguson's protective instincts. Now, foolishly to my mind, David Beckham is being written and spoken about as England's next great player before he has matured fully in the Premiership.

Following Manchester United's victory in Vienna recently, Beckham was the centre of attraction. By all accounts this is not causing Ferguson as much concern as he first imagined, but we can be sure that he would prefer more discretion.

None of this is peculiar to British sport but it does seem that nowhere else in the the world is so much made of embryonic talent.

A good thing to remember is that people in sport see things from a different perspective. Many years ago it was put to Bill Shankly that the play of a young footballer on Liverpool's books was reminiscent of Tom Finney. With a vision of Finney in his mind, Shankly chuckled. "Aye," he said, "but Tommy is 52."