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Wimbledon and Mr. Ain't-Gonna-Happen

post #1 of 14
Thread Starter 
June 28, 2004


Hopeful Britons Nurse Their Annual Case of Henmania


ONDON, June 27 - Even his most devoted Wimbledon supporters are hard-pressed to define the elusive appeal of Tim Henman, England's top tennis player and perennially disappointing also-ran.

"He's not someone you'd want to cross the room and talk to, other than that he plays tennis for England," admitted Jill Mather, 59, at Wimbledon the other day. Nonetheless, she had lined up early in the morning for the chance to enter the tournament grounds, sit on the grassy knoll that has been christened Henman Hill, and watch his match on a huge screen surrounded by a cheering, flag-draped crowd. "Vitas Gerulaitis - I would have been interested in what he was up to."

Annabel Bradburn, 34, tried a bit harder to put her finger on it. "I think he probably has got a personality, but maybe it's not the sort of personality that everyone wants him to have," she said. "He's so British - reserved, unemotional, understated. You just want to shake him and say, 'Come on, just say something inappropriate.' "

Ranked seventh in the world and seeded fifth at Wimbledon, Mr. Henman, 29, is the only Briton still in contention for a singles title this time around. But though his career at Britain's most important tennis tournament has been an extended triumph of hope over experience - he has made it as far as the semifinals four times, and as far as the quarterfinals three times, only to lose - Mr. Henman is still cast by some every June as the potential savior not only of British tennis, but also of British sports.

It is a tough burden for a man who many Britons secretly suspect is "as likely to win Wimbledon as Osama bin Laden," as The Daily Express wrote two years ago.

Each year, the country erupts in a brief ecstatic convulsion of what has come to be called Henmania, and each year, poised on what seems to be the brink of becoming the first Englishman to reach a Wimbledon singles final since someone called "Bunny" did so in 1938, Mr. Henman crumbles.

He chokes at the last minute. He loses his form, or perhaps his nerve, or his will to win. The suspicion among many Britons who dust themselves off for their annual exercise in futility is that Mr. Henman's nationality is, unfortunately, his destiny.

"The English are quite used to losing," said Laura Gibbon, a 26-year-old singer. "You know in your heart of hearts that he's not going to do it."

The feeling that when it comes down to it, Britons are losers has been particularly acute since England's heartbreaking elimination from the European soccer championships this month. With the nation irritated at the team and blanketed in general post-match bad temper, Mr. Henman is suddenly the only game in town, even for people who tend to dismiss tennis as an elitist sport for upper-class twits bounding into each other's drawing rooms saying, "Anyone for tennis?" Perhaps this will be his year, the feeling goes.

"I think he deserves to win and that he will one day," said Alison Cooper, 17, who with a pack of friends had camped out overnight to watch Mr. Henman, whom she proclaimed "very cute, especially when he has stubble."

Mr. Henman does not often have stubble. Appearing as tidy after matches as he does at the beginning, his hair cut in the style of a second-grader on the first day of school, he "looks like they let him out of his box to play tennis and then put him back in again," said Karin Warbug, 47.

Her friend Cilla Drover, 54, said that she found Mr. Henman annoyingly pale, suggesting a suspiciously slavish devotion to SPF 45 sunblock. "If he's on the circuit, you'd expect him to be a bit browner," she said. "But of course we want him to win."

For some years, Henmaniacs and sports commentators in the Henman-following British news media have urged Mr. Henman to show a bit of verve. Desperate for a glimpse of animal magnetism, they awarded him a nickname, Tiger Tim, and began chanting "Come on, Tiger!" with soccer-style enthusiasm during his matches, although that seemed to increase his anxiety.

"I could go on forever about what a hard rap Tim's been given over the years," his former coach, David Felgate, told The Observer recently. "But he didn't invent Henmania. He didn't call himself Tiger Tim. He didn't ask for Henman Hill."

At some point, too, Mr. Henman developed a habit of pumping his fist in the air after winning points. But his effort at fierceness, combined with a set of on-court facial expressions that range from worried to concerned, did not convince everyone. As Brian Viner wrote in The Independent, it is "as though he has been taking fist-pumping lessons."

"It's a bit fictitious that people expect him to do that punching-the-air thing," Ms. Gibbon said. "It's about as macho as English people get."

This year, Mr. Henman got off to a slow start at Wimbledon, floundering in an opening-round match in which, as Martin Johnson wrote in The Daily Telegraph, he "struggled and mauled and clawed his way to victory over a 20-year-old Spaniard who had never set foot on grass before." Or, as Boris Becker wrote in The Times of London: "He was terrible, no getting away from it."

But Mr. Henman pulled himself together, dispatching Ivo Heuberger of Switzerland in straight sets on Friday and handily beating Hicham Arazi of Morocco on Sunday.

Who knows? Maybe this will prove to be his year.

In the words of Ms. Mather, the early-morning Henmaniac, "We live in hope."


(Henman defeated Mark Phillippoussis today, earning a quarter-final draw against Mario Ancic of Croatia.)
post #2 of 14
Of course I have to defend a fellow sporting Brit! In a sport where we have struggled for many years, Henman has performed strongly and consistently for nearly a decade. It must be tough to compete in front of home crowds, because of the weight of expectation, yet the fact that Henman's best record of the majors is at Wimbledon suggests he can cope well with pressure.
Yes, tennis was once an upper-class sport, only for those who had plenty of gardeners to maintain their lawns, but it is now probably one of the most popular, egalitarian sports played worldwide, perhaps second only to soccer, and track. (To play golf you need several acres of well-kept turf, to play tennis you need simply a patch of tarmac or clay.) The fact that kids from the "Projects" like the Williams sisters or from poor Latin American countries can make it big, shows just how competitive the worldwide game is.
As for the "lack of character" accusation, well isn't that exactly the same accusation that was leveled at Pete Sampras for years? But no-one minded because he won. If Henman wins on Sunday (well, you never know...) no-one in the UK will be too bothered about his personality either.
post #3 of 14
Well, if we're talking about personality...
Remember Nigel Mansell?
post #4 of 14
Thread Starter 

post #5 of 14
He didn't win races by driving better than the others, he just put his radio on to broadcast to all the other cars, and he started talking. Most of the other drivers fell asleep, or died of boredom...
post #6 of 14
And don't forget the greatest ski-racer (statistically) of all time.
post #7 of 14
Thread Starter 
You? Graham?
post #8 of 14
You're too kind, Ryan old bean!
No, Ingemar Stenmark, usually called "the mono-syllabic Swede" in the media:
86 World Cup wins, between 1974 and 1989.
post #9 of 14
"Wimbledon and Mr. Ain't-Gonna-Happen"

Ryan...don't be a hater....
post #10 of 14
Thread Starter 
Only Love floweth from this font, frrennn.
Careful not to mistake realism for animosity, counsel.
post #11 of 14
Don't be cruel to ryan or bring up McLaren, it's been a tough year for the lad. He's shooting for the triple crown as soon as the Sox choke at the end of the season.
post #12 of 14
Thread Starter 
you are a very familiar tape loop.
post #13 of 14
Fishing has been slow. Time to change the bait eh.

Sox stomped by Yankee$
post #14 of 14
Well, it didn't happen. Who would have predicted at the beginning of the year that a serve-volleyer like Henman would get further in the French than at Wimbledon?
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