When talking to my pals about what they would like me to blog about, two people have featured. Serena Williams (and my seemingly never ending love of, #Renasarmy) and Tim Henman (my fervent support of). The first will have to wait, I’m still celebrating number 23. Go on Gal!
So, where do I start with Tim? A strange idol you may think? My first trip to Wimbledon in 1995 gave me a glimpse of my hero, I just didn’t know it yet! A Kenyan by the name of Paul Wekesa was taken to the cleaners by this young, skinny Brit. There was me thinking I’d chopped it off by seeing Wayne Ferreira earlier in the day on the old Court 2. Henman lost to ‘Pistol Pete’ Sampras in the next round then got defaulted in the doubles with Jeremy Bates the same day. Hmmm, I might follow this lad I thought, he sounds like good value.
The next Summer after a steady progression up the rankings, I remember him being handed the French Open Champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov as a First Round draw at Wimbledon. This was the moment it all really got started. You have to remember that at this time we simply didn’t have a British Tennis Player to regularly get behind. Bates and Wilkinson had brief runs but not past the Last 16. Rusedski was on the scene, but I preferred Henman, he had a much more complete Serve and Volley game. As a Tennis player myself, I appreciated the artistry behind Henman’s game a lot more than that of one-dimensional Greg! His volleying ability was fantastic, he could return serve well and his slice cut through the court, he was good to watch basically. His 8-2 head to head against Greg, (plus nationals victories from what I remember) proved he was a better all-round player. Watching the match against ‘The Kalashnikov’ was a roller coaster, from two sets up Henman found himself on the brink of defeat, match points down to be exact. He served back to back aces and held. In the blink of an eye, he broke, held and broke for the match. Centre Court and the Nation had a new Hero. I was gripped! Henmania had started. Wimbledon was always prominent as a Henman Fan but from this moment on for me, it became global. His run was ended by Todd Martin in the Fourth Round. He then walloped the American at the US Open a few months later to show he could beat the big players on the big stage. He bowed out to Stefan Edberg who was on his swansong. He was 21 so time was still on his side. Game on!
It also became quite apparent from an early stage in his career that the press and as a result, the general public, would be very quick to judge him as we do in society these days. It wasn’t positive a lot the time. I was furious. Could everyone not see we had a World Class Tennis player here? Wankers! Apparently, he was ‘a bottler’, ‘didn’t want it enough’ (a dig at his upper-middle-class lifestyle), ‘posh’ or he was simply ‘shit’. So I took it upon myself to have his back as they say. I wanted him to prove everyone wrong. These same people would tell me how ‘England were going to win the World Cup’, ok you delusional pricks! Good luck!
One of his biggest critics just so happened to be my old man. I was a teenager, it didn’t take much for us to have a good old row anyway, this was a disaster. He used to have a regular saying which he dropped to me no less than 5 minutes after the Goran defeat. ”See, I told you, he’s just not quite good enough, he just doesn’t quite have it”, a reference to winning a major. I bit, ”ok Dad, FUCK OFF”. Luckily for me, Mummy was a Henman Fan so no further action was taken! I’d bite at my pals too. Just say Greg was better, that would lead to a tirade of expletives! It was no different to dealing with a Liverpool defeat. Some defeats were particularly painful, very much like Liverpool! Staying up for losses such as Krajicek at the US and Canas and Davydenko at the Oz weren’t great. I used to hate the Canas’ matchup for Tim. Nightmare. He lost to him at the Oz, French, and the US. Other losses to Chris Woodruff, Jonas Bjorkman, Alberto Berasategui, Luis Horna, Xavier Malisse (another match up I used to hate) and Juan Ignacio Chela were all difficult losses to take. Jerome Golmard as well, remember him? I just couldn’t help but like him, though. He was still a top player in my eyes. He came across well, players talked well of him, he played the game with an attacking style and he was regularly Top 10. To the general public though he was only going to be judged a success if he won a major. At my peak, I was getting into rows on the streets after a night out. People piping up with all sorts of opinions. Tabloid reading shithouses! In my opinion most didn’t have a clue what they were talking about and weren’t really qualified to be saying what they were saying! The usual comments basically! I just couldn’t really get why people seemed to actually dislike him or mock him. I thought he was class. His language wasn’t the best at times on Court, regular expletives were not picked up by the press! That might have actually endeared him to people more! No wonder they didn’t do that then! His on court fall out with David Nalbandian and when he called Marcelo Rios ”a prick” in an interview were two of my personal highlights. By the sounds, a fair few players would agree in both cases.
I always thought he maximized what he had, he was a player with intelligence. People need to remember he wasn’t even expected to break into the Top 100. So to have the career he had wasn’t too bad. There were highs. Winning Bercy, The Master Series in Paris where he beat Grosjean ( who had beaten him twice on the grass that year), Davydenko, Kuerten, Federer and Roddick on his way to the Final where he beat Andrei Pavel. Two Titles indoor in Basel, beating Agassi and Federer in the Finals. Reducing the latter to tears in front of his home crowd, it’s on YouTube if you don’t believe me! The runs to both the Semi of The French and The US Open in 04 were enjoyable. I actually think that the French Semi against Coria was his best chance of making a Final, he had a real chance in that one. Goran was obviously a glorious chance. But as Goran said, had that match continued on the Friday, Henman would have made the Final. It all went against him in that one, a sad fact of life, it happens sometimes. Goran cleared his head and started throwing down missiles from Saturday. I can’t lie, even writing this now makes me realize how hard that defeat was as a fan. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the highlights for years. There would be that point where he was two points away from the Final at 5/5 in the fourth set tie-break. Ouch. But the missiles kept coming and that was that. Rafter in the Final would have been winnable, he had beat the Australian there before. However, if he could have converted his lead at the French against Coria, I’m certain he would of beat Gaston Gaudio in the Final, absolutely certain! It could have been Tim Henman King of Clay! There was always something real about supporting him though and it wasn’t fake! He got players playing Tennis again in this country. Muzza used to look up to him, it wasn’t just me! It is quite easy to forget that he also won a Silver Medal at the Olympics in 1996 in the Doubles with Neil Broad. Only getting beat by the Woodford/Woodbridge partnership in the Final.
With the exception of the defeats I’ve mentioned, I never really saw how you could argue with any of the defeats at the business end of any of the Slams. He didn’t bottle it against Sampras, Hewitt or Federer. Simple as that. They were better players. The moment things actually started going downhill, was as you would expect the time when the general public started appreciating! The fact they didn’t take to Murray initially helped that! My record Courtside at his matches was decent, about 26/0 I think. The Wins over Nalbandian, Philippoussis and his last Victory on Centre Court against Carlos Moya having that real Henman feel about them. Crowd buzzing, nerve-wracking, tense but entertaining and a high level of Tennis all in one. Then I went on one of my trips to French Open in 2007 and saw Ernests Gulbis destroy him in straights and I knew the game was up. He was simply hit off the court by a younger and stronger opponent. Tsonga proved that in Tim’s last ever Grand Slam match at the US. He looked a modern day Henman. Injuries had also started to take their toll. A back problem, in particular, being a degenerate injury!
I finally got to meet the main man himself a few years back. I was introduced to him as one of his biggest fans. I think he was expecting me to be a young kid, come on Tim you ain’t that young lad. I was obviously made up, meeting one of your hero’s on a day at work. It doesn’t get much better. I was waffling a load of shit to him! Nothing strange there! His career produced 11 titles, 5 years in the world’s Top 10 and 8 years there or there about. He reached the End Of Year Tour Finals on several occasions, having a Semi-Final appearance there in 1998. On top of this, were countless assaults at the Wimbledon Title, going deep into the Second Week on no less than 8 occasions! This was unheard of at the time for a Brit and Greg couldn’t get near that consistency. That’s a successful career to me. Just because he didn’t win a Slam didn’t make him a failure. The general public was wrong in my opinion. My old man was right in a way, he just should have had more tact!
Andy Del Potro