Wimbledon `99: I'm backing Henman to take route '36 - John Lloyd

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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN to become the first British Wimbledon men's champion since Fred Perry in 1936. That's my confident forecast. Even before the draw was made I had put down Tim as my number one favourite and the draw only reinforced my opinion.

Henman has one of the best draws I have seen for years. I know he may have to face Pete Sampras in the semi-finals but his half contains three seeded clay courters, so he couldn't have asked for better if he had bribed the Wimbledon committee.

The difference between the Tim of this year and the Henman of 1998 is huge. To start with, he has had a good clay-court season which, in his mind, was the last frontier to conquer. Let's not go overboard, he didn't win any titles but he has now proved he can live with the top guys, even on clay, and those experiences can only improve him physically and mentally.

If he plays Sampras in the semi-finals, as he did last year, I don't think this time there will be any psychological block about playing his hero, friend and practice partner. It is always a bit intimidating going up against your idol but I think this time he will throw all that stuff out of the window.

Tim has matured a lot in the past year and become a better player, while Sampras has dropped a level. I don't think losing to Pete at Queen's Club was anything to worry about because in my opinion Henman would have been happy even if he had gone out in the Stella Artois quarter-finals.

He still throws in some shaky matches but I think he is ready to become Wimbledon champion now. He has a superb record there, two quarter-finals and a semi in the last three years. Nor does he find the golden boy image and the pressure intimidating in the least; in fact all that sort of thing seems to make him actually play better.

As for Sampras, some people think he is going into Wimbledon fresh but I don't subscribe to that theory. He has had an abysmal season and played far too few matches. Winning Queen's was absolutely critical for his confidence and form. Grass is by far the easiest surface to get in shape for, so it is probably the only one Pete could win with so little competition under his belt, but I still don't think he has played enough. Even if you don't need the best physical shape, because of the short rallies you still have to be mentally tough because there are going to be crisis points.

My top five for Wimbledon are Henman, Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Andre Agassi and Greg Rusedski, with Greg in fifth place because he has been a bit up and down this year. When he has played well Rusedski has looked really good but he has also looked quite ordinary in a few tournaments. A run at the French would have helped him and he didn't play well at Queen's. Unlike Sampras, he has had enough matches but he will need to get his serve sharp from the first day at Wimbledon because I have to say I don't like his first-round draw.

Having to play someone as steady as Jason Stoltenberg, a semi-finalist in 1996, is not helpful if you tend to be a bit nervous, but if he can get past that tough first round I think Greg can beat Mark Philippoussis and reach the quarter-finals. Don't forget, he also beat Sampras in the Paris indoor final last winter, so I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be looking towards an all-British semi-final, though I think Greg needs to lift his game by 10 or 15 per cent to get back that sharpness.

Krajicek was my early favourite after I saw him win the Lipton title so impressively in March but he has not had a good time of it in the last few weeks. Like Sampras, I would have preferred to see him play a few more matches. But having won Wimbledon before is a huge asset in his favour and he also has a pretty friendly draw.

As for Agassi, he would not have been in my top eight for Wimbledon until he won the French title. After watching Andre struggle over the past couple of years I said he was finished in the Grand Slams, apart possibly from Wimbledon. Then, lo and behold, that theory has gone down the toilet. It is mind-boggling to think how well he has done. Winning the four different Grand Slams in the modern era is an incredible achievement.

But which Agassi is going to turn up on Monday? Has he been celebrating a bit too much since Paris or will his hunger for more success have been fuelled by what happened there? If he arrives with the right attitude he has a great shot and a quarter-final between Andre and Krajicek would be a fabulous match.

As for the women, I think Steffi Graf can repeat her Roland Garros success and win Wimbledon again. My three favourites are Graf, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, though Graf has by far the toughest draw. Hingis has an easy section and unless she has the sort of breakdown she suffered in Paris I think she is going to walk into the final.

The section of the draw I like is the one containing Steffi and Venus Williams (pity Serena has had to drop out). I have a sneaking feeling that Venus is going to make it to the final, though I don't think Graf will suffer the sort of Wimbledon let-down Agassi might.

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