A soft spot for SW19

Tim Henman…“ Pressure is a privilege. For me playing at home, at the Centre Court was fantastic.”-S. SUBRAMANIUM

“My memories will always centre around Wimbledon. It’s the best tournament in the world, it’s the one I grew up watching. I had some of my biggest successes and disappointments there. When I reflect on what I was able to achieve, that makes me very, very proud,” says Tim Henman in a chat with Priyansh.

There is an incident from Wimbledon 1995 that stands at odds with our perception of Tim Henman. He of the suave demeanour and polite dispositions became the first player in the Open Era to be disqualified from a Grand Slam.

Up two sets to one in a first-round doubles match, a lost point during the fourth set tiebreak led to the uncorking of Henman’s frustration. One suspects that copious amounts of anger must have been hidden behind the veneer of gentlemanliness for years. For Henman belted the ball with abandon.

Of all the places it could have reached, that fluffy sphere of rubber smacked a ball girl’s head as she made her way to his side of the court. At the point of contact, she stood only a foot away from Henman.

The rage consummated, the then 20-year-old reverted to the expected — remorseful, at a loss for words and trying to make a case for himself — reluctantly. Later, holding back tears, Henman apologised at the post-match press conference.

No love affair that starts on such a violent note has a potential to endure. But Henman’s affection for Wimbledon was more profound and it was not long before the latter responded to his advances.

Yet, the Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club eventually proved to be an elusive lover. In the moments when Henman sought to establish a more tangible relationship, it slipped away. But the Oxford resident hardly resents the betrayal.

“Pressure is a privilege. For me playing at home, at the Centre Court was fantastic. I played a lot of my best tennis at Wimbledon. Did it affect me? No, it helped me.

“My memories will always centre around Wimbledon. It’s the best tournament in the world, it’s the one I grew up watching. I had some of my biggest successes and disappointments there. When I reflect on what I was able to achieve, that makes me very, very proud.”

From disqualification to the highs and lows in later years, Wimbledon has remained a central thread throughout Henman’s career. The love for the tournament even brought him to India recently, as part of the ‘Road to Wimbledon’ project. Two Indian under-14 players, one each from the boys and girls sections, will compete at the UK National Championships on the SW19 courts in August this year.

This, though, wasn’t Henman’s first visit to India. Two decades ago — a year before his disqualification from Wimbledon — the Brit had participated in the Indian Satellite tournament. For the uninitiated, the competition in question comprised four consecutive events in a country before it was discontinued in 2006 and replaced by single-week Futures tournaments by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

Henman won titles in the first three weeks before losing the fourth in Chandigarh.

“I made a big breakthrough in my career 20 years ago here. I was on the court with kids for two and a half hours this morning (on January 9, 2013). There’s a lot of talent here. The challenge for them is to be aware of the standards required to be a world-class tennis player. The ‘Road to Wimbledon’ scheme will give them an experience of competition away from home,” he said.

Promoting Tennis. Tim Henman with kids in New Delhi as part of `The Road to Wimbledon' programme.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Henman has been a part of the project since 2002, in addition to being a current member of the Wimbledon tournament committee. With many ex-professionals choosing to assist today’s players, one wonders why the 39-year-old prefers to coach the youth over a tennis star.

“I’ve always felt strongly about promoting the game among the UK youth. After Andy Murray, there’s too big a gap there. With regards myself working on the professional tour, I don’t really want to travel 25 or 30 weeks in a year. I started travelling at 16 and played right through until I was 33. So, to travel full-time with a young family doesn’t appeal right now.”

Neither is Henman actively seeking to nurture a Grand Slam champion through this project.

“This is about accessibility and opportunity. In the UK, tennis is not as competitive as other sports. We need to encourage the eight- to nine-year olds to play the sport at their clubs or schools. Hopefully, a by-product of this project will be that some of them will become a professional.”

While Henman continues his involvement with junior tennis, he is “intrigued” like anybody else in the tennis world by the recent player-coach alliances involving, among others, Roger Federer-Stefan Edberg and Novak Djokovic-Boris Becker. At such an advanced stage of one’s career, what does a star player seek out of such associations?

“It’s about strategy and game style. How they can use their skills to the best of their ability. We have all been able to see how much (Ivan) Lendl has helped (Andy) Murray. It was a very good match-up for him. Lendl had faced similar circumstances. He lost his first six Slam finals but finished with eight titles. Andy is more proactive and aggressive now. Earlier he used to stay further behind the baseline. He is an incredible athlete and serving more consistently.

“But I don’t think anybody has an answer to how this will turn out for Federer and Djokovic.”

Murray’s transformation is not alien to Henman. In 2004, in the 30th year of his life, the former world number four, Henman, reached the semi-finals at the French and U.S. Opens. Until then, the serve-and-volley exponent had failed to match his grass exploits on other surfaces.

“In 1996, when I played on the professional tour for the first time, if you would have told me that I will be in the French Open semis eight year later, I would have found it hard to believe because I had no great clay-court experience. I worked incredibly hard (later) to improve my baseline game, use my movement and volleying skills.”

But currently, Henman doesn’t see a way back for his favoured style of tennis.

“It’s very, very difficult to come to the net. Players return even better now. If the surfaces are made quicker, we could give the serve-and-volley players a little bit of help. Surfaces are very similar now with the same type of speed. It’s important to have a contrast. We need to have slow courts surely but the indoor and grass courts need to be faster as well.”

Such a radical move will require much time before it is accepted but it’s good to see the mild-mannered Henman expressing his opinion forcefully. Not the first time this has happened.