Offside, 30 June
Henmania is dead; long live Andymonium?
Last week, after a long illness, Henmania finally passed away. But just as journalists were writing obituaries to this cringingly shrill brand of Home Counties hysteria, the nation was gripped by a full-scale outbreak of Andymonium.
Henmania had been quite poorly for a number of years. Of course the Henmaniacs continued to dutifully unfurl their plastic union jacks and put on their ludicrous ‘Come on Tim’ hats every summer. But increasingly they were going through the motions. All but the most fanatical of his acolytes must have known that Timmy had blown his best chance of winning Wimbledon in 2001 when he lost to Goran Ivanisevic in a rain-interrupted semi-final.
Over time the inflated expectations that characterised early-period Henmania have given way to a more sceptical mood – let’s call it Henmoania – in which Timbo was branded a ‘choker’ and his patriotic followers mercilessly lampooned. This sentiment was perfectly expressed by Matthew Norman in the Daily Mirror when he memorably described the Centre Court crowd as ‘barmy looking middle-aged trouts who know as much about the tactical niceties of Olympic yachting as tennis’, and ‘exactly the same deranged old haddocks who make the Last Night of the Proms such a spectacle of moronic, flag-waving humbug’ (1).
By the start of this year’s Wimbledon, expectations were at an all-time low. ‘Is this the last, last chance of them all? The end to the final annual ritual called Henmania?’ asked The Times on its front page. ‘England does not expect. Not any more. But by God, England hopes.’ But any residual Henmania very soon turned into Henmournia as the British number 1 crashed out in the second round to an obscure Russian.
Henman’s reputation as a choker is somewhat unfair. He is a top-10 world-ranking player but, alas, not a champion. As Sunday Times sports writer Hugh McIlvanney put it: ‘It is the character of his game, not the gameness of his character, that has kept him from scaling the heights.’ (2) Henman possesses a very fine grass court game but grass courts are pretty much a thing of the past, even it seems at Wimbledon where the courts are getting slower and rallies getting longer. The modern game is all about brute strength and, compared to the big hitters around him, our Timmy seems just too, well, weedy.
Henman will never be admitted to the pantheon of sporting heroes for two reasons. Firstly, and to state the bleeding obvious, he has never won Wimbledon (nor any other Grand Slam, but frankly the Brits aren’t interested in other tennis tournaments). More importantly he doesn’t have the big personality to compensate for his lack of big titles. Timmy is just too reserved, too clean cut, too damn nice to be a proper sporting hero. He was given the tag ‘Tiger Tim’, after an old comic book hero, but that must be one of the most inappropriate nicknames in the history of sport. A dangerous snarling beast he most certainly isn’t – although, like the Tiger, he too is threatened with extinction.
Ironically, the death agony of Henmania was enlivened by an uncharacteristic volley of expletives from Henman himself. ‘Come on, fuck, more, make some fucking noise. It’s fucking unbelievable’, he ranted as his Wimbledon hopes ebbed away. It was the first time in living memory that he had attempted to rouse the Centre Court crowd. Would the Roonification of Henman prove his salvation? Sadly not. Henman was incapable of matching his McEnroe-esque outburst with Superbrat-style tennis.
What then of Andymonium, the upsurge of euphoria that has attached itself to the 18-year-old Andy Murray? Are we expecting too much of a teenager who has played only a handful of senior games and is ranked 317th in the world. Murray himself retains a sense of perspective. ‘I’ve still got a long way to go and a lot to learn before I come close to fulfilling my ambition’, he recently said. ‘There’s a lot of work to be done, and whatever people may be saying about me, I haven’t done anything yet.’ Of course we should not get carried away but, in his brief vignette at Wimbledon, Murray not only showed that he has the quality to compete at the highest level but also the temperament to handle the burden of national expectation that has already been heaped on his young shoulders.
What is interesting about the new darling of the Centre Court is that he is a very un-British tennis player in many respects. Unlike Henman, Murray has no Corinthian qualms about expressing his passion or working the crowd to his advantage. Murray is not your normal English serve-and-volley merchant but a baseliner whose game is more suited to foreign clay courts than English lawns.
Let’s hope he can go one better than heroic failure a la Henman and actually win a major championship. That would be the most un-British thing of all.
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