‘Andy Murray is a better player than I ever was’

AS confidants go, Tim Henman is a pretty good asset when it comes to Wimbledon. Four-time semi-finalist and the most successful male British player since Fred Perry in the 1930s, there isn’t a blade of grass on the famous courts of SW19 that the former world No4 doesn’t know. So, who better for Andy Murray to fall back on?

Like Henman before him, the current British No1 will feel the weight of a nation on his shoulders over the next fortnight as he goes in search of a first Grand Slam success in front of a partisan home crowd.

The feats of his predecessor have already inspired Murray to the dizzy heights of No4 in the world, but Henman believes the Scot is primed to go one step further and finally break Britain’s 74-year wait for home success at the All England Club.

“Of course he can,” Henman said. “It’s not going to be easy because, like [Pete] Sampras and [Roger] Federer overlapped in my generation, he’s got Federer and [Rafael] Nadal, two of the best players who ever played the game.

“But he [Murray] can and I think he will win Grand Slams because he’s that good. He’s a better player than I ever was.

“He’s a good friend of mine and he knows I’m always here for him. But he’s been No2 in the world, been in Grand Slam finals and won three Masters series, so he’s doing pretty well on his own.”

Henman, with his calming demeanour, stole the hearts of a nation during a glittering Wimbledon career spanning 14 years but, unfortunately for the 35-year-old, his career coincided with those of grass-court legends Sampras and Federer, who between them beat him three times in his four semi-final appearances.

Sure, Murray is no stranger to the expectancy and overwhelming home support at Wimbledon, and for Henman it brings back happy memories.

“I thrived on it, I played my best tennis at Wimbledon,” he added. “You’ve got to have the right mindset, if you go into Wimbledon as a British player and if your mind is distracted by the press and media, then your mind is distracted from the game.

“I went to Wimbledon when I was five or six for the first time and I saw [Bjorn] Borg play and I remember thinking that was something I want to be a part of. It was a dream to be able to play there.

“As my game improved I was able to play on Centre Court or on Court One where the atmosphere was phenomenal, it’s an amazing thing to look back on. They were some of my greatest achievements but also my greatest disappointments. It’s the biggest and best tournament in the world and always will be.”

Despite retiring from the game in August 2007, Henman continues to be a permanent fixture on our TV screens throughout Wimbledon fortnight, which starts today, as a BBC pundit. And the 35-year-old admits he still gets that buzz of Centre Court, even though his rackets have been well and truly packed away.

“There’s massive excitement and expectation,” Henman reflects. “It’s my favourite tournament, my favourite time of year, I’m playing at home, and had incredible support so I loved it, and I still enjoy this time of year even though I’m not playing.

“Whether it’s in the summer or December time, you still get such a buzz about coming back here.”

But while Murray is left flying the flag, the rest of the British contingent have been left wondering what might have been. Alex Bogdanovic, Daniel Evans and Josh Goodall were knocked out in qualifying, while James Ward was denied a wildcard entry.

It means for the first time in the tournament’s 133-year history there are no English players in the men’s draw, leaving Murray and fellow Scot Jamie Baker as the only British representatives.

It’s an on-going debate which stretches way beyond Henman’s playing days, but the former world No4 remains hurt that the massive investment in nurturing young talent still isn’t coming to fruition.

“This year we have the fewest number of male British players ever and that’s disappointing,” he added. “We’ve got the biggest and best tournament in the world but only one guy getting in on his ranking and with the money that we are investing it’s not good enough.

“We’ve got to go back to grass roots, the seven, eight, nine-year-olds, in all areas of the country. We’ve got to get those talented sports people with the desire and the hunger to make something happen, then you need to give them a path to follow, give them the opportunity, the facilities and the coaching to develop.

“There’s no magic secret, I’ve been through that journey and there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it.

“We’ve got world class sportsmen in other sports, but in tennis we are not utilising the talent we’ve got.”

Tim Henman is an ambassador for the HSBC Road to Wimbledon National 14 & Under Challenge. By investing in grass roots tennis, HSBC is supporting a new generation of talent. For more information please visit www.hsbcroadtowimbledon.com

Centre Court (1) R Federer (Swi) v A Falla (Col); L ROBSON (GBR) v (4) J Jankovic (Ser); (3) N Djokovic (Ser) v O Rochus (Bel)

Court One: K Anderson (Rsa) v (7) N Davydenko (Rus); R Ram (USA) v (5) A Roddick (USA); R De Los Rios (Par) v (2) V Williams (USA)