Work in Sports
Henmania runs wild in England
Posted: Tuesday July 04, 2000 07:04 PM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
LONDON -- These are tough times to be a British sports fan. The national soccer team lost to Romania -- Romania! -- and faced early elimination in Euro 2000. Cricket is enmeshed in the equivalent of a point-shaving scandal. Even English world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis has failed to capture the national imagination. How bad have things gotten? With no trace of irony, they show synchronized swimming on the ESPN cognate here.
Against that backdrop, the bizarre and vaguely disturbing national phenomena known as Henmania becomes slightly more understandable. Slightly. I boarded the Tube headed for Wimbledon the other day and struck up a conversation with another tennis fan, Barry Lockington, a commercial driver from London. Aside from the usual accoutrements for a day at the courts, Barry was toting a sleeping bag. When I asked facetiously whether he was camping out for Pearl Jam tickets after the matches, he responded with a straight face, "No, Tim's playing Arnaud Clement tomorrow and I don't have tickets."
The Tim in question, of course, is Tim Henman. And while, under most any other circumstance, his match against Arnaud Clement would be put on a back court, played in front of 40 fans, at Wimbledon it had the pomp and circumstance of a Victorian jubilee. Tim, you see, is that quintessential Brit, from his Oxbridge good looks, to his prim and proper strokes, to his family membership at the All England Club. He is a fine player, but every year he seems to play his best tennis at this event and tantalize fans by contending to be the first British Wimbledon champ since Fred Perry. "It's hard to explain," says Barry, when asked to account for the outsized popularity accorded a player who's never won a Grand Slam. "He's very British and people like that."
With each round "our Tim" wins, Henmania accelerates by a power of 10. He came to Wimbledon in the throes of a mediocre year, having lost his previous two matches on grass. No matter. He was seeded eighth by his homeys at the All England. After his win over Paradorn Srichaphan -- "A Thai Breaker," as one of the tabs put it -- momentum built. He next beat Clement, provoking a debate as to whether this was his year. By the time he subdued Hicham Arazi, nobody's grass-court specialist, in straight sets over the weekend, officials were halfway to engraving his name on the winner's trophy.
The masses came out in droves for another match Monday. They painted their faces with the Union Jack. They shrieked for Tim as if he were a rock star, an impossibly clean-cut looking rock star. They exclaimed "brilliant" after each winner. Some literally cried when he was broken in the fifth set. In the end, their man acquitted himself well. But in an inordinately high-caliber match -- "brilliant," one might be inclined to call it -- Henman couldn't tame Mark Philippoussis' ballistic serves and fell 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4. The Henmania contagion was quickly inoculated. "As frustrated as I am, you've got to take your hat off to him," said Henman afterward. Acknowledging the monstrous national expectations that have been heaped on his shoulders, he added: "I'll do everything in my powers to make it happen one day. I'll be back for many more years."
So will the Henmaniacs, who, like my friend Barry, are convinced their man has what it takes to win here. Sure, to an outsider, it might seem like rooting for the Chicago Cubs. But for now anyway, it beats the alternatives.
On the Fourth of July, five of the eight female quarterfinalists will be Americans. ... None of the eight women who won Monday dropped a set. ... Pete Sampras may well proceed to the final without playing a seed. Should he beat Jan-Michael Gambill on Wednesday, he'd face the winner of Byron Black-Vladimir Voltchkov. ... Anna Kournikova's doubles match was interrupted by a streaker, who had the catch phrase "Only the balls bounce" scrawled in grease paint across his chest. He was escorted from the grounds but not charged. ... Philippoussis has served 78 aces in his last two matches. ... Serena Williams on the success of American women: "I don't know what it is. Maybe it's McDonald's." ... Possible British Davis Cupper-to-be Alexander Popp, a German by birth but the son a English mother, advanced with a five-set win over Marc Rosset. Popp was asked how he deals with his fame. His response? "I don't know because I've never really had any."
Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will be filing daily reports from Wimbledon.