Wimbledon: Henman unfazed by expectation

The home challenge: Britain's No 2 embarks confidently on quest to return the family silver to its rightful place
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IT WAS Douglas Hurd, having switched from politics to the financial markets, who coined "Wimbledonisation," a metaphor for the City's creation of beautiful conditions in which foreign players (banks and securities houses) can come to this country and win.

The mega-rich tennis players from overseas are lined up for another killing at the All England Club, and good luck to them. Loss of prize-money hurts less than loss of face as we dream wistfully of seeing a Brit's name engraved on the family silver.

Greg Rusedski's ankle injury may have taken the edge off his chances of a realistic shot at the title over the next fortnight. Tim Henman, on the other hand, is not inclined to shy away from a positive view of his prospects.

"Can the expectancy get any greater?" the 23-year-old from Oxford said with a laugh, acknowledging that his two successive appearances in the quarter-finals had primed the public.

"I definitely believe I can go further than the quarter-finals, and if I could win one tournament it would definitely be Wimbledon. But also I understand that if I go out there and have a bad day and not play well, I could lose to a lot of people in the draw. And that's what you have to be aware of. But I feel that I've got a pretty good chance, perhaps as good a chance as most."

So tennis is coming home? "I definitely believe that one day I could win Wimbledon. But having said that, when I look at my game and the way I'm developing, I'd still say it's another two or three years before I'll be playing my best tennis, where I've reached my peak. So when other people start talking about winning Wimbledon this year, I think I've got a good chance, but I think also it's fair to say that in a couple more years I'll have an even better chance."

The American Todd Martin halted Henman in 1996, and Germany's Michael Stich proved too adept and experienced for him last year, when the 1991 champion bade farewell to the sport after losing to Cedric Pioline in the semi-final.

"On both occasions I had good opportunities," Henman recounted. "In the first one I actually played pretty well against Todd Martin. And that was a typical grass court match. But to play Stich, to play Cedric Pioline, while very tough matches, I think both were matches I feasibly could have won."

The notion that British players have an advantage on grass tends to be be misleading. "My advantage is that I've played on grass since I was 11 or 12, and it suits my style of serving and volleying, as you know," Henman conceded, "but I play on it four weeks a year, and that's it. We probably don't have quite as much of an advantage as people think."

Some visiting players consider that the more they play on grass, the worse they get. "I think after four weeks on grass you're volleying pretty good," Henman said. "But you miss a lot of returns and miss a lot of passing shots over that time, and you don't actually hit many balls. On grass you can practise for an hour and barely break sweat, because of the nature of the points."

Given home advantage and confidence in his grass-court game, Henman is aware that so much else can go awry. "You'd have to ask Pete [Sampras], but to win a Slam - and he's done it 10 times - I think it's fair to say you need an element of luck, you need a few things to go your way. This is something that comes into it. So if it doesn't happen this year, then I've still got plenty more opportunities."

The same applies to Rusedski. "With his serve on grass, I think a lot of people will say he's got as good a chance as anyone, because it is so difficult to return them."

Having done what he can to sharpen his game, is the No 12 seed prepared for the latest bout of Henmania? "Wimbledon is always going to be a chaotic time, it's always going to be the greatest focus of attention. But that's just something you have to learn to deal with. It's just the nature of the tournament. It's my nationality. And people are going to be wanting to know what I'm up to. But I've always realised that it goes with the territory, so I haven't had a problem with it. You want to just concentrate on your tennis and you hope that it doesn't interfere with what you're trying to do."

Step by step, Henman is rounding out as a personality. "My perspective and my expectations of myself, I think, are increasing all the time. Most importantly, I don't think I've changed fundamentally as a person, and that's where I think I'm lucky with the people that I have around me.

"Its been evident that David [David Felgate, his coach] has had quite a lot of criticism this year, but at the end of the day it's what I want [that matters]. That is the way of the press. They're always going to want something to write about, and there are going to be times when they pick on other areas. But David and I are just happy to get on with what we're doing.

"At first, when I had a lot of things written about me, at Wimbledon '96, I tried not to read what had been written. It's obviously difficult to avoid when you're on the front page of every newspaper, but I think now I'm becoming less and less aware of it. I can understand now that it's not worth worrying about. At the end of the day I don't really care what other people want to say or think, because for me it's only worth listening to those people that I respect and those people who I think have an input into what I'm doing.

"I think David had to understand that and learn that maybe quicker than he expected, because I think that was the first time he really came under fire. What I find a little bit surprising when I look back over that period where I was having a tough time, is that I was the one who was putting in some really poor performances, and he was the one getting the blame. David's there to help me, but I'm the one who goes out there and hits the big serves, makes the volleys and hits the passing shots, and I'm also the one that serves the double-faults and chooses the wrong shots. He helps me, but I do the winning and also I do the losing.

"It's about getting me ready. I may have made tiny adjustments, but I haven't changed my game for years. Its all about preparing me so that I'm ready every time I step on the court, and for sure David knows me better than anyone in that regard. We've worked together for maybe six years now. We understand each other pretty well. It's a relationship that's worked very well. Why change something that's working? Its a pretty large jigsaw puzzle, and I've definitely got all the pieces there. Its just a question of learning how to use them in the right way and putting them all together. I'm doing that, but it's going to take time. There are times when I can be a little impatientbut I know that when I do put all the pieces in place then I think I'm going to be a very good player."

If we are to experience another case of "Wimbledonisation," who are likely to be major players? "I'm sure Pete will be the favourite, but I think [Pat] Rafter and [Petr] Korda - I don't think [Marcelo] Rios is going to me such a force at Wimbledon - but I think there you've got some pretty capable players."

Korda, 30, appears to have put everything into winning the Australian Open in January. "I think when it all came together for him in Melbourne he was definitely playing as good a tennis as anyone, but one of his problems is that he can be a little bit inconsistent."

Rafter, who defeated Rusedski in the final of the United States Open last September, has suffered motivational problems. "I think at the moment Pat is struggling a little bit more than people might have expected. He's not playing quite as well as he did at the end of last year, but I think the surface is always going to help a player of his style."

Does Andre Agassi pose a threat? "I think this year he's shown to people that his comeback's for real. On grass he's surprised a lot of people with his style - serving and staying back some of the time and dominating more with his returns. I think with him the weather plays a big part. If it's dry, the courts get hard, the ball bounces a little bit higher, that's when he could be dangerous."

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