Fantastic finish and farewell for Tim Henman

LONDON -- Tim Henman walked into the locker room at Wimbledon five years ago and was confronted by this headline from one of England's notoriously unforgiving tabloids: "Tim, if you choke this year, we will never forgive you." He's also been described as the "human color of beige."

As his career came to an end at, appropriately, the All England Club against Croatia on Saturday, the criticism was replaced by praise for the 33-year-old who carried the torch for British tennis for more than a decade, sporadically helped by transplanted Canuck Greg Rusedski.

Shortly after hitting a winning forehand in the doubles rubber that sent Great Britain into the Davis Cup world group, chants of "Henman, Henman" reverberated around Court One and a protracted standing ovation from 11,000 fans only concluded when Henman did a television interview courtside. He left the arena clutching his oldest daughter, 4-year-old Rosie. A day earlier, he kissed the grass and wept in his chair following victory over Roko Karanusic in his last singles encounter.

"With all due respect to Greg, I almost think British tennis wouldn't have existed without Tim," said Mark Petchey, a former Davis Cup teammate and the old coach of Britain's next hope, Andy Murray. "Wimbledon coming around every year, imagine him not being there as a potential semifinalist or winner? To not have had that would have left British tennis more in the wilderness than it is now."

Henman's smooth serve-and-volley game got him to four semifinals at Wimbledon, where he was cheered on by masses who succumb to Henmania in the stadium and on so-called Henman Hill. He failed to get past that hurdle, each time losing to the eventual champion -- Pete Sampras twice, Lleyton Hewitt and Goran Ivanisevic. The five-set defeat to the Croat in 2001, when he was in complete control before a rain delay, was his most painful, he said.

"Sure I've had disappointments," Henman told reporters. "But I look back on my career, and I don't have any qualms about what I've put in, how committed I've been, and how hard I've worked."

In nine straight appearances starting in 1996, Henman failed to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon just once.

"The record speaks for itself," said Ian Ritchie, CEO of the All England Club. "And although we're very much a global competition, a British player reaching four semifinals is just fantastic. His whole contribution to the event the last 10 years, and to British tennis, has been tremendous."

Henman's performances kept a nation intrigued -- Rusedski only made it to one Wimbledon quarterfinal before retiring in April -- and shifted some attention away from the Lawn Tennis Association, which has failed to produce a consistent batch of world-class players despite receiving about $60 million from the tournament each year. Besides Henman, only two men's players are in the top 200, and when Anne Keothavong reached the semifinals at the Kolkata Open in India over the weekend, she became the first British woman to make the quarterfinals at a top-tier event in 14 years.

The British men's drought at Wimbledon dates back to Fred Perry in 1936, and Henman was targeted for never winning the big one, offering bland and predictable answers in interviews -- which he's admitted to -- and showing little emotion. He comes from an affluent family, which didn't endear him to some.

"I think that's the thing that hangs around British players' necks, that if you don't win Wimbledon, you're almost deemed a failure in this country," said Englishwoman Jo Durie, a former world No. 5. "What can you do? He tried his hardest, and things didn't quite happen. He was probably one of the best players not to have won a Grand Slam."

With all due respect to Greg, I almost think British tennis wouldn't have existed without Tim.

--Mark Petchey

Henman, who made the semis at the French Open and U.S. Open in 2004 and pocketed nearly $12 million in career prize money, labeled much of the criticism "rubbish."

"If I'm from a middle-class background, do I apologize for that?" he said. "Did I have a say in that? It's ridiculous. I would ask those people one question: What is success? If you're the fourth-best player on the planet, is that success? If it's not in your eyes, that's fine."

Durie said she felt the pressure following in the footsteps of countrywomen Virginia Wade, who won Wimbledon in 1977, and Sue Barker, who triumphed at Roland Garros a year earlier. She confessed to having it easy compared with Henman, though.

"It was pretty extreme in my day, and I think it's got worse," said Durie. "You had Henman Hill, which was fabulous. You had all those people willing Tim on, but it's a hell of a thing to take on your shoulders. You have to be kind of a level-headed person to deal with it, and for sure Tim is."

That demeanor caught the eye of Paul Annacone when he was still working with Sampras, and Annacone went on to coach Henman the past four years.

"I forget which year it was at Wimbledon, maybe 1995 or 1996," Annacone said. "Pete and I were at dinner, and with all the radio, TV, every newspaper, we saw the microscope he was living under. He just seemed like such a class act the way he was dealing with it. That triggered a light bulb in my head saying, 'this is a pretty special guy.' From what I see and the way he's been interpreted, I think it's been a little bit of a shame because the guy should be a hero."

On Sunday, the negativity was gone. One tabloid proclaimed him "super" and another ran the headline, "Tim says farewell but will never be forgotten."

Ivanisevic has called on the All England Club to erect a statue of Henman alongside Perry's, and some fans paying tribute to Henman on the LTA's Web site want the grassy knoll near Court One to officially be renamed Henman Hill.
Ritchie said it probably wouldn't happen.

"Our policy has always been, and I don't really believe we're going to change that, to not name parts of the ground after players for all sorts of reasons," he said. "But that takes nothing away from what a fantastic contribution Tim has made, and we said that to him. We'll make sure that's made clear in due course as well."

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist.