Wimbledon '99: Slamming home the message to Henman

`If you've been around too long, the next generation start pushing you aside. But Tim's at the door'
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IT IS A stunning reflection of the precocity of tennis players that if - some would say simply "when" - Tim Henman wins Wimbledon in a fortnight's time he will be the oldest first- time champion since Arthur Ashe in 1975. Henman is 10 weeks short of his 25th birthday, which hardly qualifies him for a bus pass, even in tennis terms. But of the 10 champions in the past 24 years, only Richard Krajicek, who won the title two years ago at the age of 24 and a half, approaches Henman's seniority.

Boris Becker famously was 17, Bjorn Borg 20, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors 21, John McEnroe, Pat Cash, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi and Michael Stich all 22. Quite what that tells us about Henman's chances for the coming weeks is a matter for debate, but the message for the British No 1 is resound- ingly clear.

"He's coming into that period when he should be winning grand slams," says Mark Cox, the former British No 1, now the director of the Rover Junior Tennis Initiative and a shrewd commentator for the BBC. "He's now a player who's highly respected internationally and so much in tennis is about expecting what's going to happen. If you start to lose that respect, if you've been around too long without winning one, the next generation of youngsters start pushing you aside. But Tim's right at the door."

This is Henman's sixth Wimbledon and he has shown steady improvement from his first-round defeat by David Prinosil in 1994: second round, two successive quarter-finals and, last year, a semi-final against an inspired Pete Sampras. But the balance of expectation has changed subtly and, in the midst of all the other pressures, Henman has to act like the champion he has yet to become. Gallant defeat, that great British monopoly, is no longer acceptable for a player ranked sixth in the world.

Yet composure has always been one of Henman's most impressive features, from the day he hit a ball at a ball-girl, was disqualified from the Championships and came into the interview room immediately to apologise, through to the two aces with which he saved match points against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round the following year and the unshowy manner with which he accepted his victory. Here was a cool character, tougher than his boy- next- door looks suggested, thriving on the desperate support which had so often suffocated his predecessors in the role of great British hope.

Technically, as all the coaches on the circuit know, Henman has two potential weaknesses. The first is his forehand, which can break down under pressure, and the second is his first serve, which tends to be erratic. "The serve I think is more vulnerable than the forehand now," says Cox. "His first serve percentage can drop to as low as 30 per cent and that's a tough way to play, particularly on grass. Even the best players only win 50 per cent of the points on second serve. And if that first serve isn't working, the psychological balance of the point changes instantly. With the first serve, the server is in control, he is making the decisions. Miss that first serve and the receiver is suddenly on the attack. Tim's second serve is now pretty good, he's developed a good kick on that second serve, but it can't stand up all the time." Not, at least, against returners of the calibre of Agassi and Kafelnikov.

In Cox's day, the response to a bout of indifferent serving was to sacrifice pace for accuracy. "I'm not sure modern psychology allows for that," he says. "It's seen as capitulation. Most players now brazen it out, keep hitting it as hard as they can, as Agassi did in the final of the French Open, and hope it comes right. I always found that you could take five per cent off the serve and, if the placement was varied enough, you still had pretty well the same chance of winning the point. But the mentality is different these days."

The hype ignores the fact that Henman has never reached a grand slam final. Winning seven best-of-five set matches in a row requires the mind as much as the body to make a quantum leap. Though few matches can be won on reputation now, potential champions have the ability to move up a gear at the start of the second week when, for them, the real tournament begins.

One of Henman's problems is that each of his matches is a national occasion, requiring the adrenalin pump to be turned on full. By the end of the second week, the tank can be empty as it was, for example, when he was comprehensively beaten by Michael Stich two years ago. A little luck helps, too, says Stefan Edberg, the Wimbledon champion in 1988 and 1990. "I remember in the semi-final in 1988 when I was two sets down and 0-40 on my serve and I thought `that's it'. But I got back in the game, broke to take the third set and won the match. It can turn around in 10 or 15 minutes. Technically and physically, there's no problem for Tim. It's just in his mind, he has to dig a little deeper than he has done in the past."

Another Wimbledon champion, John McEnroe, advised Henman to cut the nice- guy image and get mean. You could not, for example, imagine McEnroe enjoying a gentle round of golf with Borg, Connors or Ivan Lendl a week before the biggest tournament of his year as Henman did with Sampras. "What John said did influence me," says Henman. "When someone like that says something, you listen. There were times when I was a bit reserved on court. As I've grown older and become more confident I feel I can express myself a little more. If the time is right to throw a racket or two on court, then I'll do it, but Idon't think I'm ever going to have an attitude problem." Critics would still point to his inability to kill off opponents and to peculiar lapses in concentration. At the Lipton Championships in Florida, Henman was visibly riled by Jerome Golmard's nine-minute bathroom break, a blatant piece of gamesmanship, but one which had the desired effect. Henman barely won another game.

What has impressed experienced judges like Cox, Edberg and Ian Barclay, who coached Pat Cash to his Wimbledon triumph in 1987, is Henman's progress on clay. "That gives you a wonderful foundation and great self-belief," Barclay says. "I've never seen Tim hit his ground-strokes as well as he is now and that's because he really got stuck into the clay. Winning Wimbledon will be a big step for him, but I think he can take that in his stride. Put it this way, if I had bet money on someone holing an eight-foot putt, Tim's the sort of guy I would like to have holding the putter. He's very determined and very composed."

Only Henman can truly answer the questions. If national will decided the title, the trophy would already have been in his locker. A British win would be a fitting conclusion to a century which began with victory for Reginald Doherty of London. "Hey," says Richey Reneberg, the experienced American, "he's got a chance, and on the first Monday of the tournament that's all you can ask for." Trust an American to be so free with the truth.