Tiger Tim now a Jaguar
It is the eve of Wimbledon. Tim Henman, unusually for him appears anchored on the baseline, but there is nothing wrong with those pinpoint passing shots. For England’s last great tennis hero this appearance at the David Lloyd tennis centre on the Oxford Business Park in Cowley represents a comeback of sorts: he has not played for months.
But it is a far cry from Queen’s where you would have once found Tiger Tim, making his final preparations for his annual pursuit of his holy grail.
For on the other side of the net is a raw 20-year-old talent Richard Green, who plays his tennis in a wheelchair, and dreams of making it to the 2016 Paralympics.
Next up is 17-year-old Scottish Junior number one Emma Devine and Joshua Ward-Hibbert, 18, who can claim to have recorded the fastest ever junior serve in Wimbledon history (133 mph).
The former English number was overseeing the session in his role as an ambassador of the Jaguar Academy of Sport, which offers bursaries to outstanding young players like this trio.
“It is the first time I’ve played since March,” Henman revealed, as he stepped off court. “If I can pass on some of my experience to a younger generation of players, well I’m happy to do it.”
While he reckoned to have had “a wonderful time” knocking up with the Jaguar Rising Stars, you had to wonder whether he was secretly wishing that SW19 was his next stop, to resume his love affair with the British sports-loving public.
“Not at all,” said Henman. “I miss just one per cent of it. I miss walking out on to Centre Court at Wimbledon. But not the other 99 per cent of it — all the training, the tournaments, the travelling — I don’t miss any of that.”
With his back injury giving him ongoing problems, while playing in America he came to the conclusion he was no longer enjoying it. And since 2007 he has been enjoying ‘retirement’ with his wife Lucy and three young daughters in the Oxfordshire village of Aston Tirrold, near Didcot, where he set up home eight years ago.
“It had stopped feeling like my hobby. Our third child had just been born and I did not want to be travelling, and away all the time. I wanted to spend time with the girls.” They all play “a bit” he says, although he suspects they are not helped by their name.
Henman reached four semi-finals at Wimbledon between 1998 and 2002, and in 2001 came within a mere two points of reaching the final.
England football manager Roy Hodgson recently talked about the pressure of playing for England in Euro 2012.
But for most of his playing career, Henman faced carrying the hopes and expectations of the nation on his own. It must have been a daunting prospect having such hopes pinned on him year after year.
“Not in the faintest,” he replied. “I played my best tennis at Wimbledon. Pressure is self inflicted. I never read the papers and was never interested in what people thought.
“I played for myself at the end of the day. If you stopped to think about the 15,000 in Centre Court, 10,000 on Henman Hill and 15m watching at home, you couldn’t play.”
At 37, he remains close to the game, working as a commentator for the BBC. The one blemish on his own Wimbledon years has been rearing its ugly head in recent days, thanks to the unwelcome antics of David Nalbandian, who was disqualified from the Aegon Championships final after injuring a line judge by kicking an advertising board into his shin.
It led to commentators and YouTube offering a timely reminder of who became the first player to be disqualified from a tournament in the modern era: Tim Henman, while playing doubles alongside Jeremy Bates at Wimbledon in 1995. The young Henman reacted to netting a volley by thrashing a ball in a fit of pique, striking a ball girl on the head.
Difficult to imagine, when you see him working with the youngsters or listening to his commentary as a member of the BBC team. Not even being asked “Can Andy Murray win Wimbledon?” as regularly as he once faced the inquiry, “Can you do it, Tim?” ruffles him.
He is typically generous about the Scot. “I was with him just yesterday. Of course he has a good chance of winning Wimbledon. Andy has achieved far more than I have ever achieved in the game. He happens to be playing in one of the greatest tennis eras ever, with three of the greatest players ever to play the game. For Andy to win, he would probably have to beat two of them.”
But had news reached him that Andy Murray was this week lining up a contest with him in the boxing ring? Murray told reporters, “Tim has started boxing a little so I wouldn’t mind having a go at him. Henman v Murray — that would be fun.”
Henman grins broadly. “In the neighbouring village there is a local boxing club. I’ve been working with a trainer with boxing pads just to keep fit. Andy is a massive boxing fan. The world of boxing doesn’t have to worry about me.”
What does worry him is where are the future stars to keep the Union Jacks waving on Henman Hill in the years to come.
“More money needs to be invested into the grass roots,” he tells me. “You need to get the best athletes to play tennis, who are good at other sports: the best competitors. You need to go into schools and find people in the first football XI or first level rugby. I suppose that was me. I was in the first team for all sports.”
He also happened to have been born into something of a tennis dynasty — sprinkled with performers at Wimbledon — including his mother Jane, who played there as a junior, and introduced Tim to tennis on the family’s grass court in Weston-on-the-Green when he was little more than a toddler. At The Dragon School, the independent North Oxford school that Henman attended, he won the school’s junior and senior tournaments in the same year.
He nods when I suggest that it is difficult to break the link between money and progress in tennis. It comes down to this: to be good at tennis a child needs individual lessons, lots of them. To get individual lessons, a parent will be expected to hand over £30 or £35 an hour, with squads costing £300 or £400 as well.
“Yes, you have got to make the game more accessible with cheaper facilities. That’s the big challenge and that doesn’t come cheaply. But the LTA has been targeting the grassroots. It is hard to break down the elitist image.”
The Olympics should certainly give tennis a further boost. Henman has warm memories of taking part in the games at Sydney, Athens and Atlanta, where he won a silver medal playing doubles. Even for him it represents something special.
“You see all the usual suspects there, of course. But it is different. At Grand Slams you are the centre of attention. At the Olympics you are part of the greatest sports show on Earth.”