With a record number of British women gaining a Wimbledon wild card this year, Tim Henman says he is disappointed that only two of their male counterparts were deemed ready or worthy of a similar invitation into the iconic Championships, which get under way tomorrow.
However, he says there is hope for the game in the UK, with a cluster of talent poised for a breakthrough.
Six of the eight women’s wild cards were scooped up by British women – beating the previous best of five in 2013 – but the AELTC committee, chaired by Henman and responsible for issuing the golden tickets, chose to leave several slots unused on the men’s side of the draw.
It was decided on a point of principle that Dan Evans, who had reached world No 41 before he was banned from the sport for a year for taking cocaine, was too fresh into his career rehabilitation to be granted a free pass, while others did not meet the criteria of promising more or suggesting their career would benefit from the experience.
“It is about the attitude and the sense of entitlement and every player has to realise that to get a wild card at Wimbledon is a massive privilege and a great opportunity. People shouldn’t expect them but hopefully they can take advantage of them.
“We gave two British wild cards this years into the men’s singles, Liam Broady and Jay Clarke, but we had eight wild cards to give and it is pretty depressing that we couldn’t fill them.
“We are really lucky that the profit from Wimbledon goes to the development of British tennis but we have to utilise that properly. We talk about commitment and tell the players that there are no grey areas, you are either in or you are out and 99 per cent effort is not good enough, 99 per cent commitment is not good enough. It has to be 100 per cent or nothing at all. If someone gets a wild card into Wimbledon then that is fantastic, but it is up to them to make the most of it.
“It is the start of the journey but simply being there should never be seen as the end of it. They have not made it.”
Growing up in leafy Oxfordshire, with a grass tennis court in the family garden and parents who loved to play the sport with him, having introduced it to him aged three, there is a popular presumption that Henman was served his career on a silver salver.
He vehemently disagrees. He accepts he had opportunities others may not have but it was what he did with them that allowed him to reach six grand slam semi-finals, a career ranking high of No 4 in the world and win an Olympic silver medal, wringing the best out of his ability and ensuring he can spend his retirement with no real regrets.
As a kid he would spend hours on that family court practicing his serve volley technique, getting to know his game and showing the dedication needed to eventually step out on the most notable courts in the world – including Centre Court at SW19 – and beat the likes of Roger Federer.
Having put in the graft, he says more Brits need to follow suit if the nation is to see another compatriot match or surpass his achievements or, better still, follow Andy Murray to the very top of the sport.
“There is quite often this huge spotlight on wild cards but if you are good enough you probably don’t need them. You might need one once, maybe twice on the way up, but after that, if you are good enough you shouldn’t need wild cards. That is the attitude we have to instil in the players, we want them to neither need nor want wild cards but instead to do what is needed to gain direct acceptance into all the grand slams.
“In tennis there are three elements, the technical, the physical and the mental, and you can’t be void in any one of those. To have that discipline, the determination, the hunger and desire is so important. There are some that have that but they are not good enough tennis players or athletes and there are others who are very good tennis players but who haven’t had that motivation. It is about trying to set those standards. Is it something you are born with or is it something that can be taught? Is it environment? I think it is a combination of everything. But I think it is important that we ensure that everyone understands the commitment and dedication that is required.”
While Kyle Edmund and Cameron Norrie will pursue their best in the men’s main draw and Johanna Konta leads the charge in the women’s, Henman says he is encouraged by the generation following behind.
“The next group, which Aidan McHugh is part of, along with George Loffhagen, Anton Matusevich and Jack Draper, what I like about that group is that they are all very good players so we also have healthy competition. There are four of them at the same age and they can really push each other and that is ideally what you want to get.
“In the British women’s you’ve got a similar situation, which was reflected by the wild cards. There were six of them, five of a similar age and then Naomi Broady. There’s Katy Dunne, Harriet Dart, Katie Boulter, Gabby Taylor and Katie Swan. Those five are ranked between 180-210 and moving up, so from that point of view it is more optimistic but still you need the next group to be coming through and then the next group because strength in depth has always been an issue.”
That lack of staunch competition has led to players reaching British No 1 almost unchallenged in the past and Henman sees no real value in that label. It offers a false sense of achievement, he says, when players and pundits should be more outward looking.
“It is a very British thing. Lleyton Hewitt wasn’t referred to as the Australian number one, he was the world number whatever, Rafa Nadal isn’t the Spanish number one, he is the world number one.
“It’s the same when people talk about Roger Federer. So instead of saying British number one, let’s call it what it really is. Kyle is number 18, others are somewhere in the top 50, the top 100, top 150...whatever it may be but until we have the strength and depth at the top end of the world rankings, where perhaps being British number one means something, that label tells us nothing and all it does is limit ambitions. We have to aim higher.”