Why we will miss Tim

Henman was a player out of fashion. His game was not forged in the heat of a modern foundry, but stitched together by some gentleman tailor, all nice, quaint lines, no whiff of power, no scent of arrogance, just simplicity, writes Rohit Brijnath.

When the great player leaves the game, the world mourns. When the good player farewells the stage, his country grieves. But exceptions wait alongside every rule and enough people beyond England’s shores will lament the departure of Tim Henman from the courts.

Henman, who may already have exited the U.S. Open holding his aching back, was a player who infrequently touched greatness, unable to hold it in his courtly grip. It will be argued that if he was less courtly he might have been more great, but Henman would disagree, seeing no conflict between decency and victory. Anyway, great players we see constantly, good ones with fine style and finer manners like Henman are less common on sports’ landscape.

Reviews of a player’s career are often a function of quick mathematics. How many tournaments did Henman win? Eleven. What was his best in Grand Slams? Six semifinals. What was his ranking history? Eight years in the top 20, a best of No. 4.

These numbers are not meaningless, but neither are they outrageous, no number calls attention to itself, no number is truly revealing. Mostly they tell an inadequate tale beyond the fact this man owned solid skills and used them consistently. They are the numbers of a good player.

The problem with these numbers is that they fail to calculate pleasure, they are no good at measuring delight. And Henman provided both. He did not win multiple Slams like Yevgeny Kafelnikov, not even a solitary one like Gaston Gaudio. In that count, their numbers were better; in enchantment, Henman had their number.

Perhaps Henman the boy fell into a time machine and skipped ahead of his era, for he seemed more a 1920s man, easily visualised in long trousers, belonging to a tennis time when men did not sit at changeovers, but wiped their faces, gargled and soldiered on.

Henman was a player out of fashion. His game was not forged in the heat of a modern foundry, but stitched together by some gentleman tailor, all nice, quaint lines, no whiff of power, no scent of arrogance, just simplicity. You’d think he’d just borrowed a racquet from Fred Perry’s statue near the front gates at Wimbledon and arrived ready to play. One might say that some days he appeared a Victorian poet at a convention of rap artists.

In an era of clones, he was distinctive in another way, for he practised a game no longer recommended by coaches. To watch the lithe Henman (if he owned a muscle, he hid it well) lightly skip to the net was a fulfilling sight. His serve was somewhat askew, but his volleys shining. To watch this net worshipper slide to the semifinals of the French Open in 2004 was one of that year’s finer moments. The game will miss this taciturn performer, whose photo will now hang sadly in the “extinct” section at the British museum under the title “SPECIES: SERVE AND VOLLEYER.”

Finally, Henman deserved admiration because he was an Englishman who was expected to win Wimbledon, a burden almost beyond equal in sport. No Australian has won their Open since 1976, no Frenchman has triumphed in Paris since 1983, and the last victorious American in New York came in 2003. Yet no Englishman has won the All England Championship since 1936.

So deep was the public faith in Henman, so ruthlessly examining (and mocking) the press, so persuasively debilitating the pressure, that it was a triumph that Henman could say a coherent word and hit a sensible shot during the Championships. That he reached four semifinals was outstanding. As he said, with a honesty that is almost uncomfortable in these times, that what he achieved was a reflection of who he was. “This was as good as I could have been.”

Henman added recently: “I’d probably be the first to admit I’ll probably be judged by whether I won Wimbledon. Do I think that’s right? No.” Henman is right, and yet wrong. We shouldn’t judge him by Wimbledon, yet we should. Not by the results, but by his conduct there.

That he could keep his dignity amidst the annual hysteria of “Henmania”, that he wore expectation with an uncommon grace, that he did not crumble when his dream collapsed there every year, reveals this man most clearly. Not every man is a giant on court, a ruthless competitor, a courageous hero. Some are just good players and good men. It is enough.