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Henman has Brits as riled as Brits can get

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 7, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England -- The front page of Friday's London Times had a huge color photo of British tennis star Tim Henman. The front of the sports section also carried a color photo of Henman that nearly took up half the page.

So, what did Henman do the day before to warrant such extensive coverage?

He practiced.

He didn't play. He just practiced. Granted, he was preparing for a shot at advancing to the Wimbledon final, but it was still just a practice, for crying out loud.

If you are an American, it might be difficult to understand England's obsession with Henman. Unless, of course, you're a Chicago Cubs fan. It's nothing for us to have an American in the final of our biggest tournament, the U.S. Open. It's almost expected, really. Only twice in the past 11 years have we not had one in the Open men's title match, and an American has won six times in that span.

It's different over here. Wimbledon belongs to the British in location only. It's been 63 years since a Brit reached the men's final (Bunny Austin in 1938), and 65 years since one won (Fred Perry in 1936).

It's sort of like the 34-year drought we endured at the French Open, only England's streak here is longer and far more embarrassing.

Think about how long 63 years is and you'll begin to understand why a nation awoke Friday with the same collective craving. And why, after rain interrupted play Friday evening, it rises this morning yearning for it again.

Please, oh please, let this be the year.

They are going bonkers over here about Henman, and understandably so. He is all the talk around London. On TV. On the radio. On the subway. On the street. I'm told it's the same thing in other cities around here, too. If there are bigger sports happenings around this country, you wouldn't know it.

The Brits have packed all of his matches, from the first round to Friday's rain-suspended semifinal against Goran Ivanisevic. They have sat crammed together, shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee. They have waved the Union Jack flag, held up homemade signs of encouragement and erupted in cheers on every Henman winner.

The crowd inside Centre Court was pretty rowdy, too.

The spectators with the signs and flags were outside the stadium, watching on a large-screen TV about 300 yards away on a grassy hill that's become known as "Henman's Hill." An estimated 5,000 fans watched from there along with the 14,000 inside Centre Court.

You can imagine then the restless night these Brits must have endured Friday, the outcome to their dreams left nervously uncertain overnight with "Our Tim" leading 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 6-0, 2-1 when play was suspended because of darkness.

This was cruel, in a way. Jeez, after 63 years, haven't these poor chaps waited long enough?

They are being teased once again and, in an odd way, it's our fault. Twice before, Henman came within one match of the Wimbledon final but lost each time to "Our Pete Sampras."

This year the Brits are feeling more optimistic. Sampras is gone, bounced unexpectedly in the fourth round, presumably clearing the way for "Our Tim" to finally pull a nation out of its misery.

Or so the Brits hope.

If Henman finishes off Ivanisevic today, this place is going to erupt. If he wins the title, the city will go absolutely nuts. Well, as nutty as typically stodgy British tennis fans can get, which means a trash can or two might get knocked over. It will be a day to applaud even if you're not British.

Of course, if he falls short, it will be a day to empathize, to feel sorry for a nice guy and an even nicer country that must carry their burdens for at least another year. It will be a day to look forward with optimism and hope, not back with regret and despair, which only will make things worse.

And if that doesn't work, they should just be glad they aren't Cubs fans.

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