Offside, 13 July

Henmania, Henphobia - Duleep's friends talk tennis.

Duleep Allirajah

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This week I tore myself away from studying the football transfer tea-leaves, and chose instead to explore that uniquely British phenomenon – ‘Henmania’.

As ‘Tiger’ Tim roared into the Wimbledon semi-finals I was struck by the distinct lack of enthusiasm among my friends and workmates for the British number one. I therefore decided to conduct an opinion poll to measure the strength of Henmania, employing a groundbreaking new sampling technique known as ‘Selecting People From My Email Address Book’. Admittedly, the respondents – all 26 of them – are not representative of the entire British population, but they do reflect a cross-section of young-ish metropolitan professionals (plus a few slackers).

The findings show that Henmania is definitely on the wane. A staggering two thirds of respondents either disliked Henman or were indifferent to him. Henmania appears to have generated an equal and opposite reaction – ‘Henphobia’, if you like. ‘He’s a wuss, he hasn’t got the balls to win’, said one respondent. ‘He’s a bit of a wimp’, said another. ‘He punches the air in a really weedy nerdy fashion’, observed a work colleague, while a somewhat unhinged young lawyer declared a ‘strong dislike bordering on pathological hatred’.

Henphobics were more likely to focus on his personality than his consistent record of failure in major tournaments. By contrast, those who liked Tim tended to point to his tennis skills rather than his personality (although one person cited the fact that he ‘talks the Queen’s English’ and has ‘nice straight hair’).

I suspect that part of Tim’s problem is that some people think he lacks sex appeal. The strawberry-munchers on ‘Henman Hill’ might go weak at the knees when he unzips his racket case, but nine out of 10 respondents thought that Oxford Boy was devoid of the ‘phwoar’ factor. Even women who said they liked Tim did not find him sexy. ‘John Major has more sex appeal than Tim Henman’, commented one woman. Henman’s boyish looks don’t help. A female colleague remarked that he has ‘about as much sex appeal as Charlie Brown’. ‘He looks about 12 years old’, said one woman. ‘Not sexy at all’, said another – ‘sex would feel like shagging one’s brother’.

If Timbo doesn’t do it for the ladies, which tennis stars do? Goran Ivanisevic, the passionate god-fearing Croatian who lifted the men’s title in 2001, was the most popular sex symbol. ‘Goran is pretty sexy – especially when he takes his shirt off’, said one breathless respondent. Tennis veterans Andre Agassi (‘coz he’s bald’), Boris Becker (‘must be his serve and muscular thighs’) and Pat Rafter (‘ruggedly good looking’) all picked up a few votes. Even the uncharismatic but hirsute Pete Sampras had an admirer (‘a bit of a hunk bucket’).

The lack of enthusiasm for Henman is a symptom of the wider belief that ‘they don’t make tennis stars like they used to’. When asked to choose their all-time male tennis hero, John McEnroe was nominated by 50 percent of respondents. McEnroe’s rebellious persona combined with his sublime stroke-play made him the perfect tennis hero – a charismatic winner.

The importance of personality was highlighted again when people were asked to name their current favourite male player. Many people said they didn’t have a favourite male player, and one person inexplicably chose Martina Hingis. Ivanisevic and Agassi – both brilliant and personality-rich – were the most popular among those who expressed a preference. Ivanisevic’s incredible resurrection from has-been to hero was capped when the Sun newspaper declared him ‘an honorary Brit who should be knighted’. The fact that ‘Pistol Pete’ Sampras, the most complete tennis player of his generation, was nominated by only one respondent, suggests that technical excellence alone is not enough to achieve hero status.

Tim Henman is the best male British tennis player for over half a century. I’m sure that if he were actually to win Wimbledon we would forget about his personality. But he didn’t win.

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