| Tim Henman feels he has five very good years left in the game
On the official map of the All England Club it is still labelled Aorangi Terrace, though as the gates opened Monday, that swathe of grass on the slope above the giant screen came to hysterical Union-flagged life with screams of: “Come on Tim!”
For two weeks Henman Hill is a happy living monument to British sporting fervour and its by-products — imaginative face paint, silly outfits, Barmy Army sunburn, attention-grabbing costumes, exuberant picnickers giggling on demand for roving reporters. The man who inspired it is certainly not immune to its charge.
“It is probably the thing I am most proud of. To think I was there as a five-year-old watching Borg play, and went there every year when I wasn’t playing, and now the name ‘Henman Hill’ has stuck. It’s pretty incredible,” said Henman.
Astutely, he makes a point of using his support in the psychological battle on court, urging the crowd to keep up the momentum. “Yeah. It’s a bit of a contradiction. Away from the court I’m not interested too much in the attention that goes with what I do, but when I’m on the court, when I’m playing, being the centre of attention is what I want.”
The term “Henmania” is not a superficial media invention. It is an extraordinarily accurate definition of the excessive enthusiasm for our most successful player since Fred Perry. It is immense admiration, fuelled by extraordinary good will. For nigh-on six years there has been an expectation for Our Tim to win the most distinguished Grand Slam.
The appealing grasscourt effectiveness of his game, his family associations with the All England Club, his success despite of the much-bemoaned national tennis scene — he simply has to fulfil the dream.
He has missed out at the last hurdle with record-breaking consistency. As a losing semi-finalist in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, he is the only men’s singles player in history to have reached as many semi-finals without progressing to the final. But his — and, therefore, the nation’s — disappointment never turns to anger or frustration for his fans, as it does, say, for England football supporters.
The crowd oohs and aahs, cheers raucously, even turns militant — “C’mon Tim, let’s have him!” — but his ability to so very nearly deliver is as much appreciated as the fact that he does not lose by losing nerve. His concentration may slip, but he does not bow under pressure.
Should we be expecting so much of him this year' His problems have been well-documented: the shoulder injury necessitating an operation, the setback after the comeback, the struggle to regain form. Ranked 29th in the world, his Wimbledon seeding at 10 was greeted as “a boost”.
“I don’t know about less pressure, but perhaps there is less expectation this year,” he conceded. “Since the middle of August last year to maybe a month ago, it’s been the most difficult nine months of my career, but from my own point of view the expectation will always be as high because I still believe I can improve on the semi-finals.
A veteran now at handling the pre-Championships build-up, Henman maintains personal excitement is as high as ever. “With the setbacks I’ve had, to be 100 per cent healthy and to have Wimbledon around the corner is great,” he said.
“Injuries and setbacks do put things in perspective. Suddenly when you’re not able to go out on the court and compete without being held back, that really does put things in perspective. When I was sitting on the sidelines it did emphasise to me how much I love to compete at the highest level. Last year was the worst I’ve played at Wimbledon in six years, there’s no doubt about that. Again I try and use that as a positive. I didn’t play my best and I still got to the semis. Perhaps this year if I play my best there’s no reason why I can’t improve on that.”
The dream scenario for fans is that he can play himself into form, and emerge victorious. He has allowed himself to consider how life as a Wimbledon champion would be. “It wouldn’t change a great deal. It would change in the short-term. It would be pretty hectic. I’d love to have to deal with those ‘problems’. But I have to fulfil my part of the deal.”
According to BBC commentator David Mercer, that means not being conservative in spirit. “It will be interesting to see what attitude he’ll adopt. He’s got to get himself into a really positive frame of mind. He’s got to think, ‘I’m the best serve and volleyer in the world’ and stick to that tactic. If he gets himself into a series of baseline rallies, it won’t work.”
So, hold on tight, prepare for the roller-coaster. And one we can look forward to for a good five years yet. “I tried to emphasise as much as possible when I was coming back from injury that it was important to look at the big picture, and I view myself as having five very good years left in the game.
“Sometimes you can get caught being a bit short-term but I know I will still have another four or five opportunities. That doesn’t detract from my determination, my hunger to achieve this year. That’s reality.”