IF you’ve ever wondered just how liberating retirement can be, all you need to do is spend a while chatting to Tim Henman. Throughout his long career, the Englishman looked like he was auditioning for the diplomatic corps.
Polite to a tee, there was barely a word out of place. The distractions that would inevitably accompany any controversy were given a wide berth.
Now, freed from the shackles of a relentless schedule and despite being on the board of the All-England Club, he is free to speak his mind and does so on a range of topics. He hasn’t exactly turned into a crusader for change but he is chatty, engaging and, when asked a direct question, gives a straight answer, even when the issue is whether his outraged friend Andy Murray was right to call the judicial order to destroy the blood bags in Spain’s Operation Puerto doping case “the biggest cover-up in the history of sport”.
“I completely agree with him,” said Henman. “I mean, seriously, why on earth would you destroy those blood bags? It’s a fact of life that there will always be people who try to cut corners. There have been people who have tested positive in tennis but we’ve got to make sure that there’s this massive deterrent, and that they know they are going to get caught. The Fuentes trial was a really good opportunity to perhaps uncover sportsmen and women who were cheating in a whole range of sports, including tennis. To simply destroy the blood bags was a wasted opportunity. It was pretty short-sighted in my opinion.”
Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes testified that as well as helping cyclists such as Italy’s Ivan Basso and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde to dope, he also had clients from other sports, including tennis. As Henman will be aware, Murray’s rivals Rafael Nadal and the current world No.1 Novak Djokovic have both been the subject of such sustained doping rumours that they have felt it necessary to come out and confront them head on.
Still, Murray and Henman may get their wish after Friday’s decision by prosecutors in Barcelona to challenge judge Julia Santamaria’s decision to destroy hundreds of blood bags, potentially revealing the identity of cheats in tennis and other sports. Both Murray and Roger Federer have called repeatedly for increased drugs testing in tennis.
Still, Henman is not talking to me in order to winkle out cheats on the tennis tour. Instead, we’re discussing his forthcoming trip to Edinburgh to play in the inaugural Brodies Champions of Tennis event at Raeburn Place next month. The four-day event will see tennis greats such as John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic, Greg Rusedski, Carlos Moya and Mark Philippoussis play in a specially constructed indoor court in Stockbridge. It’s a rare foray back into competitive sport for the former world No.4.
“All I’ve got to do now is dust down the racquets because the last time I played was at the Albert Hall in December and, until about two weeks ago, I hadn’t played any tennis at all since then, not even a knockabout,” he laughs. “But I keep pretty fit and, in certain respects, the tennis is the easy bit. The hard bit is making sure that your shoulder doesn’t fall off when you serve and that your back doesn’t break into a million pieces when you change up to third gear.
“By the middle of June I’ll be raring to go. I’m still a pretty young bloke, especially compared to old guys like McEnroe – I’m 38 and still in pretty good shape, and I still want to go out there and do justice to myself. Anyway, I’ve got to be ready in case I’m drawn against McEnroe – it would just be a nightmare if he had bragging rights through the whole of Wimbledon.”
Henman is genuinely enthused by the prospect of playing in Edinburgh, partly because it’s a new event in the backyard of his pal Murray, but also because the four-day tournament will see him returning to one of his earliest tennis haunts. Henman hasn’t spent this long in the Scottish capital since he was in his early teens, when he and his mother would drive up from Oxfordshire every year to compete in the British under-12 and then under-14 hard court championships at Craiglockhart. Reaching the under-12 final was his first taste of what was to come, and spurred him on. “Those memories are a big part of my childhood,” he says wistfully. “They were good times.”
Henman concedes that this will be a flying visit given that the tournament is played immediately before Wimbledon, where he is on the board of the All-England Club and will be commentating for the BBC. Yet he seems genuinely sad at missing out on spending more time with his old sparring partners. The Tour was so all-consuming, he says, that his bitterest rivals were also his best friends throughout his years at the top.
“It’s always fun catching up with the other players because so many of them were really good mates when I was playing on the main tour,” he says. “The thing you miss when you give up is that camaraderie that you experienced because, for 35 weeks of the year, it really is a travelling circus. This is a great chance to meet up with old friends. There’s also the competitive element of the game, which was one of the main reasons why I loved to play.” Henman has played so few Champions Tour events that he relishes the novelty of facing old foes and boyhood idols who retired long before he came on the scene. “I’d like to play all of those guys I played against in the past,” he says. “Carlos Moya is a young guy who has played well in the Masters events, Mark Philippousis is always good value, and obviously there’s Goran who is one of those guys I just really look forward to seeing. He and I have a big history with Wimbledon, but he was a great mate of mine both before and after that match, and he’s always a fun guy to be around.
“But then also to have the likes of McEnroe there will be incredible. He was very much another generation but I knew him when I was playing and he’s always been around the game in one way or another, and now I see a lot of him commentating at Wimbledon. But if there’s one regret it’s that [Bjorn] Borg, who was one of my idols growing up, isn’t really playing any more, although at least there’s [Stefan] Edberg, who was someone who I looked up to as I came up through the ranks.
“Who knows, I’m 38 and Andy’s 26, so if we can keep it going for another 12 years then maybe we’ll meet up in the Masters – mind you, I’d be 50 by then and wouldn’t stand much chance on the tennis court so I might have to drag him on to the golf course.”
Ah, the golf course, Henman’s favourite new habitat. One of the reasons he has slipped so easily into retirement – “if I’d known retirement was going to be this good I’d have done it ages ago” – is his love of the sport, which now consumes him almost as completely as tennis once did. He plays off scratch these days, putting in four or five rounds a week, many of them at Sunningdale where he shares the course with celebs such as Hugh Grant. His friend and mentor Sam Torrance says that Henman has the easy, languid swing of a natural, and that in another life he could have made a decent Tour professional.
Unsurprisingly, while he hasn’t played a lot of tennis in Scotland, Edinburgh has been the staging post for golfing expeditions. “I love the Dunhill Links and I absolutely love playing golf in Scotland,” he says. “I’ve played Carnoustie, Kingsbarns, the Old Course and Royal Dornoch, but there are plenty more I’d like to play, such as Castle Stuart and the new Trump course, which I’ve heard great things about.”
Despite spending more time on the golf course than tennis court, Henman keeps in touch with his first sporting love. As well as the Champions Tour he is close enough to the players that he was flown to Indian Wells and Shanghai last year to help mediate when they demanded a greater share of the sport’s riches. His close friend Paul Annacone coaches Roger Federer and his old fitness trainer Johan de Beer fills the same role with Andy Murray, so Henman remains plugged right into the sport’s mainframe.
And then there’s his relationship with Murray. Henman is realistic about Murray’s immediate prospects – he believes that Djokovic generally has the edge over Federer, Murray and Nadal, but that Federer and Murray’s natural game gives them the edge on grass – but his admiration for the Scot is palpable.
“Andy’s a far better player than I ever was, better equipped to go further,” says Henman, “so I’m not remotely surprised by how well he has done.
“I’ve known Andy for a long, long time, since he was coming through the juniors, and he’s always been either the best in the word or one of the very best at every age group. He’s always had great motivation and desire to be as good a player as he can be.
“When you reflect on the era that he’s in right now, I don’t think there’s ever been a stronger group of players, so to be knocking on the door to be the best player in the world in that context is amazing. The Olympics last year was a huge breakthrough moment for him, not least because it showed his character to come back after the disappointment of losing the Wimbledon final to 28 days later beat Federer in straight sets on the same court – an incredible achievement. That was the big stepping stone for him to go on and win in New York. I’ve always said that he’ll go on and win many Grand Slams. I think that now that he has one there will be many more to come.”
• Brodies Champions of Tennis, 20-23 June. Tickets from www.championsoftennis.com