When Tim Henman spoke frankly about British tennis and how we are far too “accepting of mediocrity”, it was inevitable that the massed clever dicks of the press would swap their knowing nudges and winks. Despite the insinuation, though, Henman is far less a part of the problem than those very journalists who hurry to reduce every uniquely promising sportsperson to a handy, easy-to-denigrate stereotype. There’s always a Bottler, a Loose Cannon, a Lovable Rogue, a Crafty Latino, etc…
Henman, of course, is the One Who Always Loses (Heroically) and as ever, the bitesize media image conveniently ignores the truth. As the best British male player of the last 50 years, he’s eminently qualified to comment. On a subjective level, his creative flair, in the style of Borg or Edberg, has made him an ideal antidote to the more brutal side of modern tennis. And while we might criticise his lapses of concentration and self-confidence, Henman’s work-rate and fitness are beyond reproach.
Speaking of which, fitness seems to be a major problem in Britain’s tennis crisis. At least a couple of the young British women in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon just didn’t look up to the job. David Foster Wallace (a promising junior player in his day) describes the high-pressure daily life at a tennis academy in ‘Infinite Jest’, and I’m guessing the training programmes haven’t changed much since he wrote that book. Not naming names, but if you’re 18 years old, carrying visible surplus around the midriff and looking utterly shattered at the end of the first set, there’s something wrong.
Of course there are other problems. School sports pitches are being sold for development all over the country and it’s difficult to promote a fairly exclusive middle-class sport when the national sport (with working class roots) is all-pervasive. However, I don’t think anyone really expects tennis to compete with football or cricket… making a decent fist of things with the facilities we already have would be a start.