SPEEDY OPERATORS STEERING A COLLISION COURSE

30 June 2002

The fast show beckons as the best of British and Australia’s world No 1 take a step closer to a dream semi-final meeting

Their feet will burn the grass. If Tim meets Lleyton in the semi-finals on Friday it will be noisy, but above all it will be fast. For of all the conflicting impressions that Henman made in the 3hr 28min of often high-drama confrontation with Wayne Ferreira, the most abiding was how fast a dog he can be when he lets himself off the leash. Don’t try drop-shots – this boy could run down a bouncing egg.

The trouble is that little Lleyton might catch it before it hits the turf. And from what we saw in yesterday’s absurdly contrasting matches, he is likely to come out blazing from the start. Ask poor Julian Knowle, the most British-sounding Austrian you will ever meet. Lleyton picked his pocket on the opening point. And by the eighth game he was 5-2 up, about to take the first set and bolt off out of sight.

Quite how the Henman army will marshal its forces for Hewitt’s opening assault will make even the warm-up unmissable. Now into his ninth Wimbledon, Tim comes to the Centre Court as organised as anybody who made that Royal bow. Everyone who picks up a tennis racket dreams of winning Wimbledon, but surely no one else started doing it while still on his mother’s knee.

Jane Henman will be there this week, as she always is. An Oxfordshire woman in her fifties, sitting with her son’s wife and coach on one side and her husband on the other. Ken Rosewall and Frank Sedgman were in the Royal Box yesterday but when it comes to super-fit golden oldies, nobody betters Henman senior. Remember those pictures last year of him playing hockey in Tokyo for Britain’s over 60s. By the look of him yesterday, he was probably having a game this evening after having five sets of family tennis first.

What is unique about the Henman organisation is the way it fuses the present with the past. Above his parents surely hover the shades of his grandfather, Henry Billington, who played here in 1948, and of his super-perky great grandmother, Ellen Stawell Brown, who in 1901 so daringly became the first woman to actually serve overarm at Wimbledon. Gosh!

That’s the inheritance, now the hype. Yesterday, when Tim stepped on to the court, the flag-waving and cheers were already at heavyweight championship level. The screams start with every successful point. Give them a winning rally and all the World Cup flags are hardly enough.

Yesterday, London’s South African community almost matched them cheer for cheer. Next week, Earl’s Court will have to empty to give Australia equivalent support.

In his press conferences, Tim talks warmly and convincingly of the lift the crowd gives him, the power it brings to his elbow. But watching him close up, you have to wonder. Sure, he has got used to freezing his features immobile to clamp his concentration down. Yet when the sheer rigidity of his self control means that his face never changes, even when he is banging his racket to exhort even more noise from the Union Jack-draped groundlings, there must be a danger of that stiffness spreading to the rest of his body.

No such inhibitions about Lleyton. Sure, poor Knowle soon became little more than a punchbag, but the Hewitt heart is worn right out there on his sleeve. The mouth open as he waits for service, the welterweight body leant forward in a low jockey crouch as he waits for service, then the scurry of those lightning feet and the almost alarmingly wide backswing before he smashes home another winner.

In the fifth game of the second set, he ran right across court to hit a forehand winner and then turned and screamed “come on” to himself. He was the world No 1 on full adrenalin. OK, he was playing the world No 95, but he looked awesome.

On the face of it, and on the form book, you left the courts fearing for Henman. But there were real positives in the Ferreira match memory, beyond the hardening process of victory against one of the most talented grasscourt players of the era. He may not be as uninhibited or even quite as talented as Hewitt, but this week a quite unbelievable tidal wave of momentum will gather up behind him. And boy, is he ready to use it.

But best of all he too has wings on his heels. Late into last night the world was still debating the overruled line call which got Tim back up to 4-2 in the tiebreak. What should not be forgotten in all the punditry is the shot two points later which got him up from 5-2 to 5-3.

Ferreira did an amazing return, Henman countered, Ferriera looked a certain winner only for Tim’s right arm to snake out for a forehand volley almost too fast for the eye, almost too quick for the heart. If the game gets good against Lleyton, it may not be wise to blink.

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