The return of Tiger Tim – a little older, wiser and creakier, but still the same Tim Henman

Alexandra Willis

Tim Henman was a mythologised sporting persona in my youth. Not quite of the Jonny Wilkinson or David Beckham ilk; in all honesty, I can’t say I ever swooned at the sight of Tiger Tim, and we certainly didn’t discuss his physique in the playground during break. But, to the probable horror of my school friends, come the summer months, Neighbours and Home and Away didn’t get a look in. Instead I would sit, glued to our Panasonic screen, as Henman caused yet another national ruckus at Wimbledon.

I was so superstitious about ‘C’mon Tim’, that I wouldn’t move from my position on the sofa, would keep one leg crossed over the other, lest it caused him to suddenly start losing. That was my way of dealing with the heart-in-the-mouth sort of tennis that Tim invariably subjected the watching public to. Pretty daft really.

Despite all our collective crossing of fingers, toes, and legs over the years, Tim Henman did not win the Grand Slam that the British public so ardently desired. He didn’t even reach a Grand Slam final. And he won 11 ATP titles, a rather paltry number when you consider that Andy Murray is already on 16, and rising. To many, he was the ‘nearly-man’ of British tennis. But, also to many, he was a beautiful player, grit, determination, and courage emanating from his slight frame as he took on bigger and better players in the name of our little Isle. He carried the British flag, modestly and courteously, for 14 years. And my word did he put up with a lot from his adoring public. “What you see is what you get”, Tim used to say about the annual ‘Tim doesn’t it again’ headlines. He is not, he once said, “the kind of person who wants to create extra attention,” and, he didn’t care that people thought him too British, too hopeless, too stiff upper lip.  “A lot of people say I’m typically British – and that’s fine with me,” was his view.

IMG00556 20101130 2026 300x225 The return of Tiger Tim    a little older, wiser and creakier, but still the same Tim Henman

Tim Henman serving at the Royal Albert Hall

Last night, those who battled through the snow to take their seats at the Royal Albert Hall for the annual AEGON Masters Tennis seniors event, were treated to Henman’s first competitive match (bar one or two exhibitions) since he walked off Wimbledon’s No.1 Court carrying his daughter Rosie three years ago. Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe it has been three years. His fresh face not betraying his 36 years, his trademark adidas pearly whites could have been plucked straight out of the 2007 SW19 locker room. Even though it was the latest dri-fit, high-def, fabric, the newest shorts with the funny squares on the back that Andy Murray favours, it looked just like the same garb he stripped off during that ludicrous advert for Ariel washing powder.

Watched by golf buddy Jamie Redknapp,  grasping his Slazenger racket, Tim strides onto the Albert Hall’s blue wooden court to play the fiery Moroccan Younes El Ayanoui. Instantly, it’s clear that time hasn’t erased his tennis. The serve is still there, exhibiting the same comforting rhythm that won him so many points on SW19’s greensward. Foot up to the line, bounce the ball three times, head over it, rather than jerking up like Roger Federer does. Bounce on his front knee for a moment, staring down the court at his opponent. And then, with an easy grace, throw the ball up towards the Albert Hall’s world renowned acoustic spaceship-type bobbles, knees bend, back foot comes forward, and reach up.

Bam. It wasn’t a monster serve like Pistol Pete’s, but it was quiet, unassuming, and effective, much like Henman himself. It’s certainly causing El Ayanoui, afro-less this year, a decent amount of trouble. And the Moroccan knows how to handle big servers. He took Andy Roddick to five sets at the Australian Open remember, losing 19-21 in the fifth. Before this year’s Isner-Mahut outrageousness, that was a pretty big deal.

Henman soon skips a break ahead. Scampering to the net, feet thudding on the hollow court, he shakes off any nominal rust, putting away smash, after smash, after smash. Does anyone hit overheads today as well as Tim did? I’m sure they do. But his are death blows. The Henman forehand too is an aggressive lope. It looks so easy.  Taking the first set 6-4, to the tune of a few reliable ‘Come on Tim’s’, Henman’s devilish grin on his face betrays the enjoyment of this sport that he claims he hasn’t missed one jot since quietly walking away.

But watching Tim wouldn’t be watching Tim without a bit of uncertainty. Without warning, he loses his way, starts missing where he was hitting, and you remember. He’s not as sharp as he used to be. He’s not the perfect tennis player, anymore. He never was. El Ayanoui is 3-0 up and enjoying himself. But Tim’s not done yet. Using hawk-eye for one of the only times in his career, and by all accounts finding it rather funny,he breaks back, breaks again, and is suddenly 5-4 up. Poor Younes. Now he knows what Kafelnikov, Moya, and anyone else subjected to a Henman comeback, felt like.

Serving out the match to love, an eager crowd member, probably in nappies in Henman’s heyday, yells ‘You’ve still got it Tim!’

It wasn’t a match that will change anyone’s career. The careers of these two are over. It’s time to concentrate on the likes of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Murray. But it delivered exactly what was expected. It was fun. It produced titters from the crowd. Even a few wows. It showed us that Tim Henman may be older, may be creakier, may not care any more, but he can still play tennis. I suppose, for once, he didn’t disappoint. It was good to see.

Henman takes on Goran Ivanisevic today as the AEGON Masters Tennis continues at the Royal Albert Hall.

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