The literary lions like to while away mornings in their lairs playing around with character names. Getting them right, making them sum up foibles and flaws perfectly. Martin Amis once asked me for help with a moniker for a disreputable journalist – should it be Clint Drinker or Clint Smoker? “Clint Smoker,” I said, being understandably thrilled when Amis went with my choice. He always tries to find room for a Keith in his satirical novels, and he also sees the comic possibilities in the name of the British men’s tennis No 1 before Andy Murray burst on to the scene.
“The first human being called Tim to achieve anything at all,” Amis wrote after Tim Henman did something typically plucky, which as we remember, was an attribute that would get him to Grand Slam semi-finals but no further. This was mild stuff, though, compared to Will Self, who once penned a magazine article sneering at all the Tims he knew. Reviewing the food in JD Wetherspoon pubs, he claimed the chain’s founder Tim Martin had never been able to escape “the fact of his Timness”. Turning to Henman, Self wrote that the player would have been a whole lot more successful if only he’d changed his name. That he didn’t could presumably be blamed on Timness as well.
But researching this week’s subject, the last-four specialist who now sits in the BBC commentary box at Wimbledon, I stumbled across something amazing: approbation from one of the most mysterious and elusive writers the world of books has ever known, or thought it knew. You see, JD Salinger was a Henman fan.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” chuckles Henman down the line from his home in Oxfordshire. Okay, maybe fan is over-egging things but it seems that the American author, who wrote The Catcher in the Rye then pretty much turned into literature’s biggest recluse, was actually pretty normal and, as letters to a British friend revealed after his death in 2010, he liked gardening, bus tours and Burger King as well checking on Henman’s valiant efforts to win a Whopper. From JD Wetherspoon to JD Salinger is a giant leap in the credibility stakes, I say. “I know,” adds Henman, “and thanks for telling me about it. The man’s obviously a genius!”
As we chat Henman is keeping an eye on the progress of the French Open on the TV and a yelping dog is clearly irritated by this, probably because the animal thinks it’s high time its master dug out the favourite, well-chewed tennis ball and they went for a walk. It is ten years since Henman, 42, retired from the sport and he doesn’t miss it one little bit.
“For a few years after I stopped playing people would ask me how I was coping with retirement and there would often be a slightly worried tone to their voices,” he explains. “But I always answered the question the same way: that if I knew retirement was going to be this good I would have quit a long time ago.
“I’m very lucky,” he adds, “I have a lot of other interests.” Then he reels off three of them: HSBC, Jaguar and Rolex. The high-end companies have been long-time backers of Henman and he remains a name in the game, a good guy to run an exclusive coaching session for clients – even if the ghost of JD Salinger might baulk at sponsors’ namechecks turning up quite so quickly in the profile, and feel in need of another of his burgers of choice.
It should be said that Henman lists his three daughters before his three corporate tie-ups, also his wife Lucy. Then there’s his golf. “I’ve always loved it. When tennis stopped there was a chance to play a whole lot more,” he says, relish in his voice. How much more? I’d read it had been five times a week while Lucy was away riding her horses, an ideal-sounding arrangement. He laughs, doesn’t quite deny the figure but says a recent elbow operation has put him out of action for a while.
He’s obviously as nifty with a chip to the green as he used to be with a forehand down the line – didn’t he once shoot 66 to Colin Montgomerie’s 72? “Ha, that was the Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews, an event I’ve been privileged to play a few times. St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns [the tournament visits all of them] are three of my favourite courses. But I should say that I was playing off different tees from Monty.”
A regular golfing buddy at Sunningdale is Sam Torrance. “We’ve been good friends for years. Sam’s got such great stories that a golf fanatic like me loves to hear and he’s particularly keen to tell them when he’s taking my money in our little wagers.” This sounds like a fun way to while away the afternoons – still playing sport to a high standard, still in the presence of great fellow sportsmen but without the stress of having to deliver the Holy Grail of the Wimbledon men’s single title. Way out on the ninth fairway at Sunningdale, same as in space, you cannot hear the Centre Court’s screams.
“Come on, Tim!” they used to wail: the barmy army of jolly matrons, teenage girls, chaps in Union Jack bowlers with additional plastic flags on top, debenture-holders, hardcore camper-outers, true tennis aficionados and 100 per cent nutters.
Once again, there’s the perception of what life has been like and for Timothy Henry Henman and what it’s lobbed at him and there’s what he insists is the reality. No, he says, it wasn’t a chore or a bore to have to carry a nation’s hopes and dreams for every summer. He doesn’t miss tennis but that’s nothing to do with the great and ridiculous two-week soap opera, alas ending in his case just shy of the fortnight.
“The whole ‘A nation expects’ thing wasn’t a burden. Not in any way, shape or form. Tennis was my hobby which became my career but it never felt like a job. The pressure I did feel before matches was self-inflicted. I didn’t go out on court there thinking about what was being said in the papers and on TV about me. How I was being portrayed and if people might have been getting a bit carried away. If I had been worrying about the crowd then I wouldn’t have been concentrating on my preparation and my performance.”
This is standard sportsman response. We can try claiming that every July in Britain around the turn of the century, tennis became more than mere sport. We can argue, too, that Henman’s task, if not duty, was to be crowned more than simply champion and rather the Middle England exemplar of perfect manners and pressed whites, the young man all mothers in the shires wanted their daughters to marry. But he isn’t having any of it. “Perception,” he repeats, getting slightly irked. “Just your opinion.”
He can be touchy, such as when I innocently suggest that with his back-story – a family tree that’s a giant oak of loyal Wimbledon service – he was always going to see his name flashed up on the famous dark green scoreboard one day. He smashes straight back at me, saying: “Yeah, well why didn’t it happen for my two older brothers as well?”
The Wimbers heritage is, as old Dan Maskell would put it, remarkable. His great-grandfather, maternal grandfather, maternal grandmother and mother played there, while his maternal great grandmother, Ellen Stanwell-Brown, was according to 1901 legend the first woman to serve overarm at the All-England Club.
But to be fair, Henman’s prickliness comes with humour, for when I mention the grass court at the back of his parents’ home in another part of Oxfordshire giving him such a great start, he quips: “Of course. I was very fortunate. And I was hardly going to say: ‘Hey Dad, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this. Could we maybe move to a house which doesn’t have a court in the garden so I’m the same as other kids?’”
His father was a solicitor with a prodigious work ethic from whom Henman gained his competitiveness and the old man, now 77, still plays hockey for Great Britain Over 70s. His mother, provider of his sweet volleying technique presumably, would drive him to junior tournaments after a maiden visit to Wimbledon when he glimpsed the genius of Bjorn Borg and decided, not just that he wanted to play on Centre Court, but become its champ.
It didn’t quite work out that way though Henman, who achieved the ranking of world No 4 and did win 11 tournaments, gave it a pretty good go. Of his four semi-final defeats in SW19 the one that haunted him was 2001’s rain-battered epic against Goran Ivanisevic which lasted three days. “I used to say it was the only match from my career that I’d want the chance to play again but I’m over it now. There were always people for whom it was a bigger regret.” The inhabitants of Henman Hill, perhaps, who he used to pretend didn’t exist? “Well, they still say to me: ‘Don’t you wish Centre Court had a roof in your day?’ Maybe I do, but there were half a dozen matches at Wimbledon where I wasn’t playing well and rain delays saved me.
“I’m not really a guy who looks back or has regrets. In my house there’s only one photograph of me from my playing days.” But don’t go playing amateur psychologist and pouncing on this remark, he says, or the admission that he only picks up a racquet three or four times a year now, and wondering if he really enjoyed his tennis career. “I did,” he insists. “Absolutely loved it. And I’d do it all again tomorrow if I could.”
When he retired, though, it was definitely time to hand over the baton to Andy Murray and right away Henman reckoned the Scot would develop into a better player than him with real champ potential. “I got to know him during the Davis Cup when he was the ‘orange boy’ and we hit it off from the start because we share the same sarcastic sense of humour. He was raw as a player but even then he was able to give himself a lot of time on the ball and I can’t say I’ve been surprised by what he’s achieved.
“He’s won three Grand Slams and twice been Olympic champion in this incredible era. It’s the golden age of men’s tennis and if [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic hadn’t been around Andy would surely have won seven or eight titles but his success has still been phenomenal.” Nor does Henman think Murray’s glory days are over yet, and despite him being dogged by injury and illness in 2017, he backs his successor to retain his Wimbledon crown. “I’m not worried about Andy’s form. It’s been dictated by the preparation and practice he hasn’t been able to put in place this year. Shingles is a debilitating illness and so far he hasn’t been able to build on what he achieved in getting to No 1. But, with a clean bill of health, and the chance to gain some momentum as he comes on to grass I can see him winning Wimbledon again, definitely.”
We talk about personality, the one the Wimbledon crowd expects of its champion, unless it suddenly feels like altering the terms and conditions. Henman concedes some used to think him too straight but, when young Murray arrived to display the edginess and drama that Henman lacked, the cry would go up: “Why can’t he be more like Tim?”
“You can’t win,” he sighs. “When [Bjorn] Borg was the iceman, everyone said: ‘That’s amazing.’ But when [Pete] Sampras didn’t show any emotion he was accused of being dull. Similarly when [Jimmy] Connors and [John] McEnroe shouted and swore they were called the great entertainers. Then Lleyton Hewitt did something similar and people said: ‘Spoiled brat’.”
Henman insists he didn’t mind being called, in the words of one stand-up comedian, “the human equivalent of beige”, adding: “I wasn’t involved in a personality contest.” That he was such an easy target for cheap gags was partly his doing. “I worked out early that I had a choice: I could give an honest answer when asked a question or the right answer. It was partly down to my background that I gave the right answer and it also made life easier. Of course it got me labelled a boring bugger as well!
“Andy is different from me. Ninety -nine times out of a hundred he gives an honest answer. You can see the issues and the complications that has brought him.” One such difficulty arose out of a jokey remark that when it came to football and an upcoming World Cup Murray would be supporting “anyone but England”. Henman, who admits to some culpability having goaded Murray over Scotland’s failures across a host of sports, felt for his friend after that when the Englishman’s old fanbase were slow to warm to the new man.
That’s in the past, though. Wimbledon loves Murray now. And Henman loves going back there every year to help bring the action into our homes. “Commentating was tough at first,” he admits. “I was very fortunate to work on the 2008 final between Federer and Nadal which was easily the best match I’d ever seen but I was unbelievably nervous and very worried that I’d ruin the spectacle for the viewers. I’m more relaxed now and can see the potential for opinion and some humour, things I didn’t really allow myself to have when I was playing.”
Go on, Tim: this year I dare you sneak in a line from JD Salinger!
l Tim Henman will be part of the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon 2017 which is exclusively live on the BBC across TV, radio and online from Monday 3 July.