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Love proves to be a fleeting emotion on Henman Hill

Tim Henman may be more of an overachiever than slacker, but don't tell the British tabloids.

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 6, 2002


WIMBLEDON, England -- Here on Henman Hill, the upper lips are not particularly stiff.

The English fans trudge around aimlessly, their eyes downcast, their heads shaking sadly at the latest disappointment. The flag of St. George falls from the shoulders of an Englishman and drops to the muddy ground. A woman removes a plastic bowler hat with the Union Jack painted on it and swears loudly.

Here on Henman Hill, the sun has set on the British Empire.

Alas, poor Tim Henman. He has lost again. Another year, another semifinal, another disappointment. Once again Henman allowed England to dream. Once again a nation has been awakened rudely.

Here on Henman Hill, the real estate prices are dropping sharply.

Friday was a tough day for the home crowd. For the fourth time in five years Henman was bounced from Wimbledon's semifinals. This time Henman was blown away in straight sets by Lleyton Hewitt. In a sight that has become agonizingly familiar, Henman was measured for greatness, and once again the tailor had material left over.

Pity. The English fans wanted this badly. The English newspapers wanted this badly. Even Henman, who should know better, wanted this badly. This is what happens when ungodly expectations are placed upon mortal men.

This is who Henman is. This is what he does. When you look at Henman's resume, frankly, reaching the semis is pretty good. Certainly there is nothing to suggest his reach should be extended.

Yes, he arouses the rabble here every year, but Henman has never made it to the quarters of any other major. Perhaps the achievements are not too low. Perhaps the expectations are too high.

Poor Henman. It is going to be difficult to be him today. The nation that has chanted his name will curse it instead. The fans will talk not of what he has done, but what he lacks. The tabloids that wrote all the cheerleading headlines about Brave Tim, Timbo, the Timinator, will eat him alive. They will hoist him like a pinata, and every one of them will take a whack. No one will call him Tiger Tim. Tiny Tim, perhaps.

They want him to be so much more than he is, these resilient English fans. They try so desperately to believe. Year after year, disappointment after disappointment, they wear the colors, they wave the flags, they wear the silly hats. They manage to find a way to believe that this year somehow, some way, will be different. That Henman will be different.

The fans were there again Friday on this clump of ground outside Court One. Officially the area is called the Aorangi Food Garden, but the unofficial name is Henman Hill (and, at times, Rusedski Ridge). The fans pay their money to enter the grounds, then sit in the rain and the damp grass to cheer a television screen the size of a drive-in movie screen. Also, you can buy beer.

On Henman Hill, they love Tim. Also, they hate him. The relationship comes and goes, excitement and frustration, adoration and agony, until you become convinced these fans and the rest of those in this country don't know how they feel about Henman.

He has made them care, and he has taught them disappointment. Bless him, and while you're at it, curse him. For a very long time Wimbledon was the most un-English part of England. It has been 66 years since an Englishman won Wimbledon, 64 since one reached the final. The history of the tournament is that it has had plenty of mad dogs, but precious few Englishmen.

Most years the English looked upon Wimbledon as a very nice, very foreign art exhibit. It was wonderful to see, of course, but no one locally actually owned a pallet. It wouldn't be ... proper.

Henman (and to a lesser degree, Rusedski) changed all of that. He made Wimbledon interactive for the Brits. He added the painted face and cheering masses to the stuffy, old sergeant majors who ran Wimbledon. He made the crusty codgers clear their throats and wonder if all of this Henmania was good for Wimbledon.

Ah, but achieving a small portion of success doesn't satisfy fans for long. Never has so much newsprint been dedicated to a player so far from greatness. The papers in this country are the true Henmaniacs. They write everything about him. Everything.

They talk about his teeth, his hair, his serve. They suggest he lacks personality, passion, perseverance. They suggest there is a large gooey filling inside. They call him a "Mummy's boy."

Earlier in the tournament the Mirror carried this headline: "No Pressure, Timbo, But If You Choke Now, We'll Never Forgive You."

Then there was this from Martin Samuel of the Times of London: "How should I put this? Tim is Friends. Tim is a film where someone dies young from cancer. Tim is a chick thing."

On Friday, the day Henman played the No.1 player in the world for a right to play for the title of the No.1 tournament, the Mirror carried a story on how Henman's fist-pump wasn't authoritative enough. His fist-pump! They showed four photos, labeling the action "Soppy," "Limp-Fist," "Knuckle Fluster" and "Armless."

Then, of course, there are the other stories, the ones that prop Henman up as if overcoming a dodgy stomach is the same thing as storming an enemy stronghold. Heroic, they call him. Gallant. You can almost picture one aging World WarII veteran spinning his wheelchair toward another and saying, "Courageous, wasn't he?"

All of this is a little humorous, of course. And it isn't as if American newspapers don't take little bites out of our celebrities, too. When it comes to hounds, the Baskervilles have nothing on us.

The difference is that, usually, we feast on greatness. We don't bother with semifinal losers. We save our obsessions for Michael, for Tiger, for Muhammad.

That's the sorrow here. Henman is a nice little player, but really he's a lot more chariot than fire. He reached the semis by beating players ranked Nos.165, 230, 51, 45 and 90. The legends were not exactly calling.

So now they will pack Henman in mothballs, and next year they will take him and shove him toward the semis. They will gather on the hill, paint their faces and ask for more than he can give. They should know better, but they won't.

Here on Henman Hill, we wait.

Next year, perhaps things will be different.

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