The grass court season often sparks more than hayfever as the levels of hope and talk of glory are cranked up. He experienced it throughout his playing career and since rising to the top, Andy Murray has also had to deal with it. But, having watched the former World No.1 battle back from a serious hip operation and a frustratingly lengthy lay-off, he insists it would be foolish and probably futile to make rash demands of Murray if he makes it to the Wimbledon start line this summer.
“The enjoyment of being out on Centre Court, soaking up the atmosphere, playing in the biggest and best tournament in the world, that is always a motivating factor and that whole element of competition is what Andy has missed.
“If you are a professional athlete you are going to have injuries and face bumps in the road but I don’t think it makes you any hungrier because to get to the top you are so motivated and hungry anyway. You can’t be more than 100 per cent motivated. But, in Andy’s case, because he has been out so long I think it makes him appreciate even more how much he loves the game and loves to compete because he hasn’t been able to do that. So, for him, to get back out on the court is a real boost mentally.
“But if you had said to me five weeks ago that he would have been playing the grass court season then I would have said that it is highly unlikely because I have seen a fair amount of him at Wimbledon, where he has been training, and it was hard.”
Hard for Murray and hard for those who want him to succeed to watch as he struggled to move to the next stage in his rehabilitation.
“He was making really slow progress but it was great to see him back out on court at Queen’s and obviously he is going to play Eastbourne this week.”
Whether he will take his place, unseeded, in the draw for the Wimbledon Championships remains to be seen but if he does, Henman says it should be viewed only as another step in the right direction rather than any serious tilt at the title he has already won twice.
In another era, one devoid of at least one or two of the Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic triumvirate, Henman believes the Scot would have added several more trophies and titles to his collection. But up against a trio who have commandeered 49 majors between them, the man who played at a time when eight consecutive grand slam events were won by eight different men, says Murray’s task has been an often thankless one.
“Federer, Nadal, Djokovic are three of the top five or six male players to ever play the game. You could put Pete Sampras [who twice denied Henman a place in the Wimbledon final] in that conversation, and probably Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver, but for a generation to have three….they have won the equivalent of 12 years’ worth of grand slams between them and that doesn’t leave a lot for anyone else.”
But the fact that Murray’s tennis talent and drive was such that he was still able to rise to the top – he was ranked the best in the world when his hip injury finally sidelined him – proves his mental strength and his willingness to overcome difficulties. Which has been handy in recent months and – hip willing – says Henman, should see him through the trying times ahead. “It was a really, really serious injury and with his physique and style of play and how much he relies on his movement that emphasises what a challenge it is. But he has overcome so many challenges in his career and his life and this is just the latest one in front of it.
“Having been out for that long and now seeing where he is at with his hip this is genuinely just a stepping stone and an opportunity to be on the match court and build up. If this time next year he has played a full schedule and he is losing first and second round in tournaments then we can all say, hang on a minute, this is not good, but I don’t believe that will be the case.”
When Henman walked away from the sport he knew it was the right time. He was 33 and falling down the rankings and did not believe he would get any better. Having asked himself if he was simply making up the numbers at tournaments, rather than honestly fancying his chances, his answer told him it was time to move on. He didn’t hit a ball for 19 months after that and after a showcase appearance under the new Centre Court roof he didn’t pick up his racquet again for over a year. Brutally candid with himself, he admits he did not always give an honest portrayal of himself in his playing days.
It wasn’t quite the grey Spitting Image of John Major, but for all the Henmania and the red, white and blue of the Union Flag-waving fans and the jolly japes of the ‘C’mon Tim’ shouts, there was a certain dullness to his politeness.
His ability to take us to the brink of greatness before coming up just short was labelled as British as it gets and his stoic public acceptance of his status reinforced that perception. But if his defeats in the latter stages of grand slams came up short of his own aspirations, the predictability of his response when faced with the media was as premeditated as they could be.
Which is why the sight of him relaxed, open, laughing and seemingly unperturbed by the dictaphone resting on the arm of his comfy armchair as he chats away is an unexpected surprise. It is the same out on the Gleneagles Arena show court where he entertained as he took on and defeated Thomas Muster on Friday and then faced up to Mark Philippoussis in the final of the Brodies Invitational yesterday. Gone are the stiff fist pumps and shut down emotions and instead enjoyment radiates. Apparently that personality always lurked within but, like an errant wild child, was closely chaperoned in public.
“My learning curve was 1995 when I got disqualified at Wimbledon [for hitting a ball girl with a petulantly wayward Slazenger]. I was sharing a flat with Andrew Richardson who was playing in the Championships and was a good friend of mine and the next day he went out and bought all the newspapers and I remember reading the headlines and the back page of the Sun said ‘He hit it so hard it could have killed her’ and I was like ‘what?!’” he laughs at the absurdity of it now but it was pivotal in the defining of his public persona. “I worked out at that time that there was often the right answer or the honest answer and so I gave what others considered the right answer, the safe answer, most of the time because I knew that would deflect attention. But then you are a boring so and so. I was damned if I did, damned if I didn’t so I thought: ‘well, let’s just control the controllables’ and when I was getting blamed for the weather at Wimbledon then I knew that expectations were a little crazy and out of control and it was better to shut it out.”
The shutters came down. But more than ten years since he retired, in 2007, he is willing to join in the bizarreness of a blindfolded and sleepy Murray identifying him with a quick sniff as part of a Sport Relief challenge and happy to show his personality and the skills that remain far from rusty despite the fact the accomplished golfer spends more time of the course than a tennis court these days.
The first time he stayed at Gleneagles was when he and wife Lucy travelled north for Murray’s wedding. As a golf fan – the man who has an impressive +1 handicap actually describes himself as a golf addict – has also tackled the course that hosted the 2014 Ryder Cup but after two elbow operations last year he has denied himself that pleasure during this visit.
“I didn’t want to rock up saying I had hurt my elbow playing golf. I didn’t think that would go down too well. So I thought I would be sensible,” he says.
“The beauty of these things is that I don’t play them that often. If I play three or four a year, that’s perfect. There is an element of competition and it is good to go out and have fun and compete against some guys I don’t get to see too often. But it is so much more relaxed.”
His fleeting encounters allow absence to make the heart grow fonder, which is something Murray will understand following his enforced sabbatical. But unlike Henman, the Scot is unlikely to relax until he is back challenging for more lofty titles.