Offside, 11 July: Henmania

Why Britain is turning against the Timbo Taliban.

Duleep Allirajah

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Once again it is time to put away your ‘Come on Tim’ hats and roll up your plastic Union Jacks. Henmania is over for another year.

For the benefit of readers who’ve been living in an al-Qaeda training camp for the last few years, Henmania is that genteel brand of fanaticism that grips the strawberry-munching classes for two weeks every summer. When Tim Henman wins a point his devoted followers, the so-called Henmaniacs, scream and applaud excitedly. There are no abusive songs questioning his opponent’s sexuality; just faces painted red and blue, comedy hats and the jolly-hockey-sticks chant of ‘Henman!’ – clap, clap, clap.

In spite of Tiger Tim’s propensity to choke against top-class opponents, die-hard Henmaniacs remain eternally optimistic. ‘I think this might be his year, it is the Jubilee after all’, said Mrs Cindy Cummins from Oxfordshire (1). Unless there is some obscure royal power that enables the Queen to appoint the Wimbledon champion, I don’t really see how the Jubilee could have helped, but I guess there’s no reasoning with true believers. But while Timbo’s Taliban keep the faith, most once-a-year tennis fans are rather more sceptical, as I discovered when I conducted a poll of friends and work colleagues last year (2).

And there is evidence of an increasingly vocal anti-Henmaniac tendency emerging in Britain. In a letter to The Times (London), David Goodenday declared that he, ‘an old-fashioned Englishman’, was ‘utterly revolted’ at the ‘loutish behaviour’ of the ‘flag-waving yobs’ who support Henman (3). Mr Goodenday believes that ‘any flags or other nationalistic displays such as silly hats’ should be banned from the tournament.

Another Times reader, Mr Penton Lewis of Suffolk, was appalled at the ‘loud, prolonged and unchecked applause’ whenever Henman’s opponent made an unforced error. ‘Whatever the merits of enthusiastic partisanship’, wrote Mr Lewis, ‘this was outrageous, inhospitable and boorish behaviour – no credit to the country, nor to the tournament’ (4).

Anti-Henmania is not just confined to ‘disgusted’ of the Home Counties. James Lawton, writing in the Independent, was no less scathing about the ‘seething cockpit of unbridled, street-level passion and raucous partiality otherwise known as the Wimbledon Centre Court’ (5). ‘The old affection for the no-hope British challenge has turned into something quite different’, bemoaned Lawton. ‘It is streaked with desperation and, horror of horrors, an outright lack of sportsmanship.’

Daily Mirror columnist Matthew Norman made no attempt to hide his contempt for the Henmaniacs: ‘There is no crowd across the sporting spectrum more ignorant, foolish and sycophantic than the Centre Court mob, a collection of humanity dominated by barmy looking middle-aged trouts who know as much about the tactical niceties of Olympic yachting as tennis.’ (6)

So what does this new mood of anti-Henmania indicate? More than anything it shows how uncomfortable we are with any expression of old-style patriotism these days, whether it be working-class England football fans singing ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ or middle-class Henmaniacs waving Union Jacks.

The fancy-dress jingoism of the Henmaniacs is fairly innocuous but, like John Major’s idyll of ‘warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’, the flag-waving Henmaniacs are regarded as antiquated throwbacks to Old Britain. Matthew Norman put it more bluntly: ‘They’re exactly the same deranged old haddocks who make the Last Night of the Proms such a spectacle of moronic, flag-waving humbug.’

In the face of such a savage onslaught I almost feel sorry for the Henmaniacs (with emphasis on the ‘almost’). Admittedly, there are too many middle-aged trouts for my liking too, not to mention a fair number of fish-faced adolescents. Nor do I much care for their jester hats or their nerdy chants of ‘Timmy, Timmy, Timmy, Oi, Oi, Oi!’. But I cannot see what is wrong with a bit of partisanship in tennis. Applauding your opponent’s errors may not conform to the lofty ideal of fair play (the one traditional British value that is not seen as outdated), but that’s what being partisan is all about.

My problem with the Henmaniacs is that they are too mild-mannered and not nearly passionate enough. The Australian tennis fans were much more vocal in their backing for Lleyton Hewitt, while two over-exuberant Spaniards were reportedly ejected for being too loud. So next time one of Henman’s opponents makes an unforced error, how about really rubbing it in? Altogether now: ‘You’re shit and you know you are….’

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Jubilee may be his year, fans say, Guardian, 24 June 2002

(2) Offside, 13 July 2001

(3) The Times (London), 30 June 2002

(4) The Times (London), 3 July 2002

(5) James Lawton: Henmania reflects sad and poisonous lack of sportsmanship, Independent, 4 July 2002

(6) Daily Mirror, 2 July 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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