Offside, 10 July

The twin British vices of Henmania and Henmoania.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Try doing a Google News search for ‘Henmania’. You will find headline after headline from news websites across the globe reporting that Britain has once again been in the grip of that awfully polite brand of once-a-year fanaticism.

‘Henmania runs high’, declared the Toronto Star. ‘It’s Henmania time once again’, announced The Hindu. ‘Britain bands together to support its hero Henman’, reported USA Today.

Now, it is true that 12.7million British TV viewers did tune in to roar Tiger Tim on to victory against David Nalbandian. But apart from sharing a train carriage with three mildly excited Middle England Mujahideen on their way to Wimbledon, I haven’t met any other Britons showing symptoms of anything remotely resembling mania.

‘Henman’, according to Barry McElwaine in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri, was ‘carrying the concrete weight of a nation on his slender, injury-ridden shoulders’. Was he really? Most people I know wanted Tim to do well – though some malevolent souls wished ignominious defeat on the poor Tiger – but there was fairly widespread pessimism about his chances of winning.

Timbo may have been shouldering the nation’s expectations but these expectations, it must be said, were pretty low. In an online poll on the Daily Mail website, which one would expect to be the last bastion of Henmania, only 20 percent of voters thought that Tim would lift the trophy. The Church of Henmania appears to be suffering from a CofE-style crisis of faith.

A quick scan of those Google search results also reveals another interesting development: an increasingly bitter carping directed against the annual Henman jamboree. Henmania, it seems, has given way to Henmoania. This is not an entirely novel phenomenon. Last year I noted the new fashion for journalists to savage the flag-waving, middle-aged women who get their (probably very large) knickers in a twist when Surbiton Boy unzips his racket case (1).

But this year there was a new dimension to Henmoania. Not only are the flag-waving Henmaniacs seen as twee and embarrassing but they also gets the blame for Tim’s endemic failure to win Wimbledon. ‘It’s entirely possible that rather than lift their hero with their support, they’ve crushed him with the burden of their expectation ‘, wrote Mitchell Symons in the Daily Express (2). Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win Wimbledon (and in Silver Jubilee year to boot – gawd bless you Ginny), also thinks that Henmania has become a hindrance to Tim’s title chances. ‘Tim has to go through this every year, and it’s tough when you’re the only one shouldering all the pressure’, said Wade.

Now you won’t find me waving a plastic Union Jack or wearing one of those buffoonish jesters hats that increasingly blight our sporting events, but I have no time for Henmoania either. My main gripe with Henmania, apart from the shocking taste in clothes of its adherents, is that it has turned the men’s tournament aprés-Henman into a sideshow. Admittedly, there are no charismatic tennis stars in the McEnroe or Nastase mould to get the crowd going, but there is still sporting excellence on display, exemplified by Roger Federer’s breathtaking demolition of Andy Roddick in the semi-finals. And here I would agree with Virginia Wade that ‘Wimbledon is not only about Tim Henman winning’.

But it’s ridiculous to blame Henmania for heaping too much pressure on Our Tim. I mean, if Timbo can’t handle the burden of national expectation he’s chosen the wrong trade.

What distinguishes a tennis champion from the rest is precisely the ability to perform under immense pressure. Henman’s record at Wimbledon, reaching the quarter-finals in seven of the past eight years and the semi-finals four times, suggests that he thrives rather than wilts under the pressure of Henmania. In fact, his rather dismal record in the other Grand Slams, in which he has never reached the quarter-finals, indicates that he cannot raise his game without the shrill cries of ‘Come on Tim!’ ringing in his ears.

To his credit Henman himself has never complained about the weight of expectation. ‘Do I have a problem with the attention? I don’t think about it’, he said recently. If Tim Henman never wins Wimbledon, as seems inevitable, it is because – how shall I put this – he serves like a girl. He also tends to choke in big games – but that’s hardly the fault of his flag-waving followers.

So let’s quit this self-indulgent Henmoania and get down to the business of producing some tennis stars worthy of high expectations.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Offside, 11 July 2002

(2) Daily Express, 4 July 2003

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Topics Politics


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