4 July 2004

Brough Scott looks back on another tough week for Tim and says the public are misguided for criticising him

Tim Henman needs to dream of winning Wimbledon to keep his tennis alive. We need the dream just to keep an interest. That is why we get so cross with him when he loses. As absurdity goes, nothing in our sporting year matches the ludicrous flying of flags and then renting of raiment which accompanies the annual attempt of Timothy Henry Henman to win the world’s greatest tennis tournament on the lawns of SW19.

No matter that he almost always outperforms his seeding, that in nine years he has lost in three quarter and four semi-finals, a mile ahead of any British perfomer since the late lamented Fred Perry in the Thirties. No matter that his exact chance can always be summed up in the phrase “he can beat anyone on his day but there are better players than him around”, the dream has to live on. Crikey, where would we be without it?

To play the game properly we have to be promised a `New Henman’ each year and this summer we had a double whammy. A new coach in Paul Annacone and new results, an unthinkable semi-final place on that unwelcoming red Parisian clay at Roland Garros. No matter that Tim did not actually make the final, he was beaten by an unknown in the first round at Queen’s and Wimbledon somehow seeded him not first but fifth, experts told us that he had been given an easy draw.

Cue to a rather embarrassing first half hour on the Centre Court two weeks ago with our hero a set down and into a tie-break with a Spanish gentleman so obscure that the encyclopaedic Wimbledon programme did not even have his details. `Gritty Tim’ battled through, promising more to come, as he did against the previously unsung Ivo Heuberger, whose main claim to fame was that he was a Swiss opponent on the day after the Swiss referee whistled England out of Euro 2004.

On to `People’s Sunday’ and it is the genial Moroccan Hicham Arazi who is the nation’s dancing partner and dutifully bows out despite scaring us all by taking the third set 6-3. For the ninth time in a row Henman is into Wimbledon’s second week and late into Monday evening against Mark Philippoussis he gives the dream more legitimacy than ever it had before.

As the cuttings of this year’s `Henmania’ nonsense hit the dumps, it is worth remembering just how good that Monday evening was. I had never seen Henman as complete as this. True the `Scud’ nickname applies more to the speed of Philippoussis’s serve than of his velocity across court, but the Australian now hailing from the Californian town of Cardiff-on-Sea was made to look positively static as Henman weaved magic around the court.

This was the player for whom we had been waiting. All those caricatures of Tim being too pukka, too willowy, too wimpish to make the big time, dissolved before the tour de force on court. Last year’s pit pat serve was a distant memory as the 125mph sign kept flashing up. The face may have been kept in its inanimate focus, but the feet and, above all, the racket had a wondrous speed and a purpose about them which was wondrous to behold.

In all the `Will this be his year?’ drivel, it’s easy to forget just how fantastic is Henman’s hand-eye co-ordination. He will never be as powerful as Andy Roddick, as fast as Lleyton Hewitt, or as complete as the flowing genius that is Roger Federer on form, but his placement and volleying can be things of beauty. One stop volley off a full-blooded Philippoussis drive took the breath away.

The best criterion as to how a match is going is whom you feel sorry for. Despite a splendid rally by Cardiff-on-Sea’s finest server after a spat with the referee, you always felt that it was he, and those scarred, much-injured legs, that were getting the worst of it. Two days later we hoped and expected to feel the same about the leaning tower of Split, otherwise known as 6ft 5in Mario Ancic, stubbly beard, big baby eyes and surely a lamb for the slaughter. We hoped in vain.

We did not feel sorry for him, nor really for Tim, but for ourselves. For, quite soon, Centre Court had a strangely subdued feeling. Ancic may have looked callow, but he was strong. His serves came rocketing down from the heavens, his huge wings covered the court. Henman was not playing badly, but he did not seem to have any answers: a magician who could not rub his lamp.

After a couple of sets the best we could think of was the negative hope that Mario might crack. But the boy who beat Federer himself two years ago never let Tim have a smell. The annual lamentations, the radio phone-ins, the `is this the end for British sport?’ outcries, were about to begin.

In truth, it is impossible to get angry with the man. With his clipped hair and unfailing courtesy, Henman is positively Kiplingesque in the way he treats triumph and disaster `just the same’. He goes along with the jokes of what he would do “when I am chairman of the club” after victory, and now he holds up his hands in regret in defeat.”Yes, it feels even worse,” he admits. “Of course time is running out. But I still have high expectations. This is something I am good at. I still have to believe.”

It is a tribute to Tim Henman that no one begrudges him the very considerable wages he gets from both playing, almost $10 million (£5.5 million) so far, and from hugely well-endowed advertisements. He does his best. He needs to try. We need to dream. Get ready for next year.

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