22 December 2002
For most of us Wimbledon still defines it and this year it had everything. Tim Henman versus Lleyton Hewitt, mortality apparently coming to Pete Sampras, and the ever increasing dominance of the Williams sisters.
To be at courtside for Hewitt’s demolition of Henman was a dispiriting experience; not because Henman showed himself anything other than the best British player of the last 50 years, but that this was still so clearly not good enough. To maintain a place in the world’s top 10 and to reach four Wimbledon semi-finals in five years are tremendous achievements. But at 28, seven years senior to the smaller, lighter Australian, Henman has won just one set from Hewitt in six matches and when the champion hit that unbelievably wing-heeled high zone of concentration in this semi-final it was hard to see the sequence being altered.
But, despite the bewilderingly misleading public hype around Wimbledon time, Henman remains a magnificently game and consistent performer as he showed with his injured shoulder heroics in the Davis Cup tie against Thailand. He and Greg Rusedski will set off in the new year fresh after surgery and will have the supreme example of Sampras’s US Open triumph as inspiration.
At Wimbledon, Sampras came into the interview every inch a beaten man, much more sad and philosophical about his defeat by some Swiss unknown than any raging “against the dying of the light”. That he could rekindle himself to the extent of winning that epic Flushing Meadow final against Andre Agassi for his 14th and sweetest Grand Slam has to be the ultimate measure of the man.
The news that he will continue into 2003 means that he himself believes that there are more championships in him, albeit with none of the now rather terrifying certainty which shines from Serena Williams. Her three Grand Slam victories, defeating sister Venus in London and New York finals, allied to her physical size and power, make her almost too successful for the game’s good. It is carping to complain about excellence, but only human to hope that real challengers will emerge in the year ahead.
The same wish holds even more true for the state of British tennis where the resignation of performance director Patrice Hagelauer had an ominous ring about it at a time when no player below Henman and Rusedski can make it into the top 100. However, his departing words had encouragement at the standards of the younger players coming through and of the bold new initiatives at such places as Reeds School, where Henman first emerged as part of the Slater Scheme under David Lloyd.