Henman's window of opportunity closing

Updated: June 24, 2005, 11:21 AM ET
By Barry Lorge | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England – To understand the peculiar pressure there is for British players to win a title at Wimbledon, you only need to take a short stroll through history at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. To appreciate the emotional angst a proud nation that no longer rules the waves or the tennis courts feels when a fellow capable enough to carry the country's colors exits early, you only have to examine Tim Henman's torturous, five-set defeat Thursday at the hands of 22-year-old Russian Dmitry Tursunov.

Henman, now 30, seeded No. 6 in singles, had made it to the second week of The Championships nine years running, including four forays into the semifinals. But on this sultry afternoon he ran into a hard-hitting comer who kept the heat on after blowing two match points the first time he served for the second-round victory. After 3 hours, 37 minutes, Henman melted like an ice cream that was delicious while it lasted, but didn't last quite long enough. The scores were 3-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6.

Centre Court was packed to its 14,000-spectator capacity. There were no empty picnic tables and nary an open patch of grass on "Henman Hill," where perhaps 7,000 more loyalists held vigil around a giant TV screen as "Our Tim" sweated bullets for them. Untold millions were glued to their "tellies" across the country. When Henman's comeback from two match points down on Tursunov's serve at 5-4 in the final set fizzled, the British people seemed more deflated than Henman himself, and he was mightily disappointed.

"I've certainly won my share of matches like that, in that environment, having got myself back into it," said Henman, who had fought back from a two-set deficit in his first-round victory over Jarkko Nieminen of Finland. "To not be able to finish it off and come out with a win, yeah, it's disappointing. It's tough to take. But certainly I've got to give him a lot of credit. I didn't think he could serve that consistently for that long a period."

If Charles Dickens were reincarnated today, and inclined to write a weighty novel about British tennis, he could re-use a familiar title: Great Expectations. To get a sense of this, just walk 100 yards from the wrought-iron Doherty Gate on Church Road – named for Reggie and Laurie Doherty, brothers who won a slew of singles and doubles titles at the turn of the last century – to the main members' entrance at the All England Club.

First you pass a statue of Fred Perry, Britain's last champion in the gentlemen's singles, who won three straight years (1934-36). Then you come to bronze busts of the five British women who have won the ladies' singles since the club's current grounds opened in 1922: Kathleen McKane Godfree (1924, 1926), Dorothy Round (1934, 1937), Angela Mortimer (1961), Ann Haydon Jones (1969) and Virginia Wade (1977).

The Perry statue captures the British ideal of towering sporting talent and a tough temperament to boot, for which Perry was renowned. He is depicted wearing the long, white flannels that were the fashion of the day. He holds a ball in his left hand as he prepares to crunch a bruising forehand, indicating that his first serve was indeed in the court. His confident countenance and killer stroke were captured by sculptor David Wynne in 1984 and frozen in time. Britain has been waiting 69 years for a countryman to duplicate Perry's steel-willed resolve and Wimbledon triumphs.

The bronze depictions of the lady champions are new this year. They flank the wooden doors of the club, just behind which is the famous quotation from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," which so captures the essence of British stoicism: "If you can meet triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same … "

Those words used to be emblazoned on a plaque directly over the players' entrance to Centre Court. Now they are printed in silver on a wall, underneath a large, flat-screen television. On Thursday, the impressively uniformed and beribboned members of the Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards who were stationed at that door, probably as much for pomp and ceremony as for security, seemed to spend less time looking out to where Royal Box visitors arrive than turning inside to glance at the TV, following Henman's progress like so many of their countrymen.

Britain is the birthplace of tennis. Wimbledon is the oldest tournament, dating to 1877, and has always been the sport's most majestic stage. History clings to every nook and cranny of the All England Club like the vines that climb the walls of Centre Court. It is an inescapable part of The Championships, magnifying the accomplishments of those who have worn the crown, and measuring the failings of pretenders to the throne as well. Great expectations have been an inspiration to some British players, including Henman, and an enormous burden to many more.

"I think because we stage the biggest tournament in the world, there has always been the expectation that we would have great players to compete in it, and until the second world war, we certainly did have winners. Perry was winning it," said John Barrett, former British Davis Cup player and coach, BBC commentator and husband of Angela Mortimer, the 1961 champion.

"The war finished us as a tennis power, I think. In the post-war period, the lack of development of the sport in Britain led to its decline, and the rest of the world just zoomed past us. We were overtaken by everybody, and we've never caught up. So when somebody comes along with a bit of promise, like a Tim Henman, the hope and expectation is to repeat what Perry did. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as that. The worst numbers for any British tennis player are 34, 35, and 36, because that is when Perry won his three titles in a row, and no young player is ever allowed to forget it." To fathom the hunger of the British people for a native winner, remember it has been 28 years since Wade – "Our Ginny" – won in 1977, Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee Year. It seemed as if there was not a person in Britain who wasn't intensely interested in her victory over Dutchwoman Betty Stove, and who didn't take a sense of personal pride in it.

I was at Wimbledon that day, when the Centre Court crowd wept with joy and serenaded Wade with choruses of "For She's A Jolly Good Fellow." A friend was at the Royal Festival Hall in Central London, watching the final dress rehearsal for the world premiere of a Tom Stoppard play, with music by the conductor, Andre Previn. In the middle of the matinee performance, the maestro was handed a slip of paper. He tapped his baton on the music stand and announced, simply and succinctly, "Ginny's won." No explanation necessary. The concertmaster demanded to know the score – not of the musical, but of the match. Previn said: 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. The entire London Symphony stood and applauded.

That gives you an inkling of the hopes and expectations that have dominated the British consciousness in recent years when Henman has stepped on court at Wimbledon. Grass is his favorite surface. Wimbledon is annually his ultimate goal. He took a career 41-11 record in The Championships into the match against Tursunov. Many spectators waved the Union Jack, or wore replicas of it on one piece of attire or another. They expected Henman to win for them.

You can make a good case that Henman has played up to his ability, maybe even above it, in most of his Wimbledon and Davis Cup efforts, when carrying the hopes and expectations of his nation. The reality is he probably doesn't have the total package of talent, technique, tactics and toughness, a la Fred Perry – that it takes to vault from the top 10 in the world to the exalted position of Wimbledon champion. If he can't quite make the final leap to realize his reveries, Britain's dream goes unfulfilled as well.

Truth to tell, he played much better than he had in the first round. It is just that Tursunov, No. 76 in the men's tour ranking before two broken vertebrae suffered in a boating accident and then a knee injury sidelined him for the better part of a year, averaged 127 mph on his first serves, 106 mph on his second, and blasted blistering returns and groundstrokes that discouraged Henman from coming to the net as often as he would have liked.

"What can I do about that? Can I try harder?" Henman asked rhetorically, invoking Kipling's attitude toward triumph and disaster, though admittedly haunted by his failure to convert 17 of the 22 break points he had in the match. "Difficult as it is to accept, you have to give the guy credit. … If he can play like that, then he's better than me today."

At crunch time, Tursunov hit three ferocious return winners around Henman's seventh and final double fault to break for a 7-6 lead in the final set. Having squandered those two match points on his serve at 5-4, he let one more slip before hammering his 20th and final ace past Henman's forehand. A nail through Britain's heart.

The collective breath was sucked out of the crowd on Centre Court. The silence from Henman Hill, which had exploded in rapture when "Our Tim" broke back to even the final set at 5-5, was deafening.

From the giant screen, the BBC commentator said, "And now the mantle of Henman passes to Andrew Murray, the only Briton left in the tournament." Murray, a promising 18-year-old Scot who impressively upset No. 14 seed Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, had better have shoulders broad enough to bear the weight of the Fred Perry statue.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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