The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Running against the sands of time
- Tim Henman aims at becoming the third-oldest to clinch first title at Big W

After the “Big ‘Un”, 6 foot 10 inch Ivo Karlovic who became a figure of legend by slaying a giant almost a foot smaller than himself, comes the “Old ‘Un”. Tim Henman began his 10th Wimbledon by resisting the challenge of Czech Tomas Zib, but with the woebegone air of a man carrying the weight of history on his dodgy shoulder.

Although the great British sporting public insist on calling him “Timmy”, as though he was an ice-cream smeared creation of Enid Blyton, if Henman were to emerge triumphant on the Centre Court on Sunday week, then at 28 years 303 days of age he would become the third-oldest first-time winner since tennis went “Open” in 1968.

Only Goran Ivanisevic, a 29-year-old winner in 2001, and Arthur Ashe, who became champion a few days shy of his 32nd birthday in 1975, were older.

While Henman could expect a knighthood (nay, make that a sainthood) should he defy the ageing process, it is sobering to remember that Pete Sampras was in possession of five Wimbledon men’s singles titles by the time he turned 28. Bjorn Borg, another who won five times, had been retired for three years.

Just to add another perspective to Henman’s standing in the global game. Whereas Ashe and Ivanisevic won 33 and 22 tournaments respectively during their careers, our Timmy has won but nine worldwide, and in 22 Grand Slam events away from his beloved grass has never once progressed beyond the fourth round.

He may be a distinctly ‘C list’ sporting celebrity compared to Denis Compton, Nick Faldo or Sir Steve Redgrave, but for two weeks every summer since he made his debut at the All England Club in 1994, he has carried the hopes and prayers of a nation starved of a British male victory since Fred Perry won the third of his titles 67 years ago. It is not Henman’s fault that he is the best of a distinctly ordinary bunch.

That Henman defeated Zib 6-2, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1 was due entirely to the fact that, as poorly as he played, his opponent was even more abject. Particularly during an abysmal first set following which the Czech could have appeared as a guest on ‘What’s My Line'’ in full tennis whites and carrying a racket and still flummoxed the panel. “A tennis player' Get away, I never would have guessed…”

To be fair to Zib, he was hampered throughout by a back injury, which required two bedside visits by the physiotherapist who proceeded to “treat” his patient like a wrestling rival with a series of holds resembling full nelsons, Boston crabs and their painful like. He re-emerged like a man reborn. “I hit a forehand volley behind him and he dived full-length across the baseline,” Henman recalled. “OK, I thought to myself, I won’t worry about your back any longer…”

As someone who spends his time in the twilight world of the Challenger events and is ranked a lowly 157th, this was only Zib’s second match in a main Tour event in two seasons. That may explain why it took him a set and a half to settle into his unfamiliar surroundings. On top of that, his arrival on Court No 1 coincided with the appearance in the competitors’ box of a nubile and sun-tanned leggy blonde wearing a Rolex watch and very little else. If the rumour suggesting she and Zib are interactive is true, then who can blame the lad for choosing to spend so little time on the tennis court'

With Henman mysteriously reluctant to utilise his volleying skills even on his first serve, the contest was a curious mixture of woeful errors and occasional (very occasional) exciting rallies, such as the exchange which brought Henman the crucial break point at 11-11 in the second-set tie-break.

Having saved three set points (one of which was due to an outrageous line-call), the Briton concluded a scintillating little cameo of drop-shots, lobs and net-scraping groundstrokes with a blistering forehand winner.

That singular flash of brilliance earned Henman a standing ovation but the crowd was in a strangely subdued mood for long periods. They wanted to turn this first-round singles into the Last Night of the Proms, but it was impossible to do so when the star performers were so cringingly off-key.

As Lleyton Hewitt would no doubt confirm, it is often difficult to produce your best form during the early days of a two-week tournament. But, relieved as he will be at qualifying for the second round, Henman will be concerned that having led 6-2, 4-2, he allowed himself to be dragged into a war of attrition from the baseline against an opponent who was introduced to the draw as a “lucky loser”.

Zib was defeated in the third round of the qualifying event after earlier victories over Tati Rascon and Potito Starace. “Tati and Potito,” observed the man from the Daily Record, as Henman broke again for a 5-1 lead in the fourth set, “and now he’s had his chips…”

Asked if the British wanted him to win Wimbledon even more than he himself did, Henman grinned. “It’s a good question but the answer has to be me,” he said. “It’s the reason I play this game. Ever since I first came here nine years ago, everything has revolved round this tournament. It’s the one I want to win more than anything else…”

Yet the fact remains that he has been a semi-finalist a laudable four times in five years without taking that final leap unto greatness; why'

“That’s the whole challenge for me. Why haven’t I progressed further at Wimbledon' I think the bottom line is that I haven’t been good enough…” Perish the thought, but has time already run out for Tim Henman'

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