An exceptionally talented player

Tim Henman could have won a Grand Slam if he had held a bigger weapon in his armoury, says Steve Bierley.

Whatever happens then, and so much will depend on the fitness and form of Andy Murray, Henman has experienced enough highs and lows at the All England Club to deal with the occasion in his usual professional way, although it would be sad to see him exit on a losing note.

The problem for Henman has always been, at the very highest level, that he was a lightweight trying to batter down heavyweights. It was the essence of his game that he was forced to play eyeballs out against the leading players, because essentially he never had a truly big weapon in his armoury. His serve, until his back went, could be vicious, but it was never consistent and, more pertinently, never natural. Had Henman possessed Greg Rusedski's serve he may well have won a Slam. That he did not have such a serve cost him dear in terms of his ultimate ambition to win Wimbledon.

History may view his semifinal on the red clay of Paris as his finest performance. In truth he should have beaten Guillermo Coria of Argentina, just as he should have beaten Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic in their protracted, rain-affected Wimbledon semifinal in 2001. The fact that Henman failed was not that he lacked ambition or resolution, rather that his inability to close out both matches highlighted mental insecurities and frailties that a great champion barely has need to consider.

The middle-class tag that was fixed to him in times of defeat, notably at Wimbledon, was an irrelevance. You had only to hear him swear and cuss with the best on court to get an idea of the fierce competitive spirit burning within him that had little to do with his upbringing. If the charge of being too nice were to be levelled against him, it was that he should really have severed his links with his first coach, David Felgate, long before he did.

Of the 28 finals he reached, he won 11, which he will consider a disappointing ratio, yet all of those titles, bar one, were won abroad, underlying his international competitiveness in a sport which so many of the British public still view as being restricted to Wimbledon and the weeks leading up to it. It was hardly his fault that every year the BBC lost all international perspective whenever the gates of the All England Club swung open in late June.

Henman has played in a decade of two great champions, Sampras and Roger Federer, and when the window of opportunity opened in 2001 he encountered an inspired Ivanisevic. The next year he reached the Wimbledon semifinals for the fourth and final time although he was never in with a chance against Australia's Lleyton Hewitt who loved nothing more than a target at the net.

Henman's last title came almost four years ago in Paris when he won his one and only Masters Series event, second only to the Slams. Strangely, given his Wimbledon exploits, he never won a grass court title. Unarguably he was a more talented all-round player than Rusedski, yet it was the latter who reached a Slam final, losing at Flushing Meadows to Australia's Pat Rafter in 1997, and that will always be a source of regret for Henman.

That said, he has always worked with exceptional diligence off court, and has been his own man, underlined by his succinct and honest summing up of his career. �There are many people who don't win Grand Slams. I would say I was a good player who worked hard and gave everything he got to his profession. I don't think you can ask for more than that.�

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007