Wimbledon: Andy Murray can rewrite a familiar British story, says Tim Henman
Are top British tennis players forever fated to be denied universal support? Tim Henman was too southern for some tastes, Andy Murray too northern. Perhaps Fred Perry had it right, born as he was in Rochdale, half-way up a nation Henman hopes will be united in its backing for Murray today.
The Scot is close to Henman, whom he had cheered on in his annual quest to emulate Perry. The baton has now been transferred to Murray, who will seek to avoid equalling Henman’s record of four semi-final defeats when he steps out against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga later today on Centre Court.
Henman has now become one of Murray’s greatest cheerleaders, and will look on from the BBC commentary box. “I sort of feel like we do go back quite a long way,” he said yesterday. “I have really enjoyed sitting and watching these scenarios unfold, having been through this process myself. I do think he is better equipped to go further, because he is a better player than I ever was. Those atmospheres and the matches on Centre Court, the roof adds a different element to it.”
It got intense enough in Henman’s day. Four times he fought to reach the final, four times he fell just short against an opponent who on each occasion would go on to lift the title. There are still reminders of these times in the screeches of “C’mon Tim!” which echo around Centre Court, hollered out to this day by would-be comics.
Henman has called for these jokers to desist. “I’ve heard it enough,” he said. “I think Andy needs all the support he can get, so if they can channel it towards him I think it would make a lot of people happy.”
It has, though, been noticeable how much more backing Murray has gained since the early years, when he came across as sulky and slightly gauche. But there are still British tennis fans who prefer the elegant Federer, or the power and poise of Nadal. There are those who might even be cheering for Tsonga, the extremely popular Frenchman with a winning smile and an engaging personality.
Henman knows he was often cast as the emotionally-repressed Englishman, one dubbed “Timmy-boy” by the mockers.
Murray was a teenager when he came out with injudicious comments about supporting England’s opponents in a football match. That should be consigned to history, and perhaps will be if he wins the title on Sunday, or at least progresses to a momentous final appearance. On ten previous occasions a British player has reached this stage, they have failed to do what Bunny Austin did in 1938, and make it a step further.
“I think he’s been a little bit unfortunate with the way things panned out in the early days with the England/Scotland thing,” reflected Henman yesterday. “But he’s a phenomenal player and a really, really good person. I hope that people can, if there is a question mark in their mind, really get behind him.
“This is an unbelievable opportunity for him,” he added. “I’ve heard Fred Perry and Bunny Austin talked about for long enough and I’d be pretty happy for that conversation to end.”
Back in 2001, Henman had what was considered to be his own best chance against wild card Goran Ivanisevic, although it did not translate as this. There were the rain-breaks to contend with for a start, but he was also, memorably, pitted against one, two and even three Gorans, each of whose destiny it was to claim the Wimbledon title. Ivanisevic spoke entertainingly of his multiple personalities, and few begrudged him his success, even though it came at the expense of a home hope.
“I look back on those [semi-finals] with massive pride,” said Henman. “I would have loved to have gone further but I still loved every minute of it. I can look back at the Ivanisevic match and say it was my best opportunity, but we all know the history of that match. It wasn’t meant to be. I came here as a six-year old so to then be out on Centre Court and have those experiences was amazing.”
Henman’s last semi-final appearance came against Lleyton Hewitt ten years ago, when he was 27. He believes Murray has room for improvement, but agrees that today stands as his finest opportunity to reach the final, faced, as he is, by someone he has grown accustomed to overcoming. “I would hope the complete package doesn’t exist for him at the age of 25 because he can still improve,” said Henman of Murray. “But in terms of his career, most definitely he is ready. He is more experienced, I think he’s playing as well as he has ever played. And he is in a great place mentally and physically.
“So for sure, this is his best opportunity. Talk is cheap, isn’t it? He’s the one who has to produce. But I have every confidence he will because he’s ready for it.”
Henman places huge emphasis on the “Lendl factor” as Murray homes in on a first Grand Slam title. The Englishman was not quite at the status where he could afford to hire a full-time coach with Lendl’s pedigree. He credits the eight-time Grand Slam champion with keeping Murray’s emotions in check, laughing off an enquiry about whether he came close to coaching the Scot, as once had been mooted.
“I’ve never had a real job, and I don’t want one now,” he said, before returning to the subject of the lugubrious Lendl. “When you have someone in your corner who has been to 20 grand slam finals, and who lost his first four, just that voice of wisdom and reassurance for Andy will be great to have. I really hope he can take advantage of that.”
Murray’s penchant for screaming up at his coach, as he did when Brad Gilbert was in his employ, has not been so evident in recent times.
“Given his stature in the game, I can imagine it is not that easy to shout and scream at someone like Ivan, otherwise I don’t think he would hang around long,” mused Henman, who described the rising tide of Murraymania as a “terrifying” phenomenon. He is now in a position to judge the reaction after being protected from the fervour which intensified as he made it through each round.
His parents would hide the more over-the-top front pages of newspapers and then present them to him at Christmas. “You would pinch yourself and think, ‘wow, was that really all about me?’” he laughed.
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