- 28 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, the 28th of June 2007, Tim Henman played his last match at Wimbledon, defeated by Feliciano Lopez in the second round (7-6 7-6 3-6 2-6 6-1). Henman had been the crowd’s best hope to become the first British male player to triumph at the All England Club since Fred Perry in 1936.
With his classic game of serve and volley, he had reached the semi-finals four times, but he had never managed to get to the final round. “Gentleman Tim” was so popular amongst the British fans that the Aorangi Terrace had been unofficially renamed Henman Hill because of the crowd staying to watch him play on the giant screen.
Wimbledon is the oldest and the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Held by the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club since 1877, it moved into its current location in 1922, the same year when the Center Court was built. Considered by many as the most intimidating court in the world, with its famous Rudyard Kipling quote above the entrance (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”), the Center Court had seen the best players of all time competing for the title.
After the US Open switched to clay and then hard court in the 1970’s, and after the Australian Open switched to hard court in 1988, Wimbledon remained the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on grass, a surface that is usually more suitable for serve and volley players. Not only did Wimbledon keep its surface, but it also maintained old-fashioned traditions such as the white dress code.
For a player like Tim Henman, who was British and played serve and volley, Wimbledon was the most special tournament, especially as no British players had claimed the title since Fred Perry in 1936.
Tim Henman was born in 1974. At the age of 6, his parents took him to Wimbledon, and as he watched Björn Borg play on the Centre Court, young Tim decided he wanted to become a professional tennis player and win the tournament.
Fourteen years later, in 1994, a 20-year old Tim Henman made his Grand Slam debut at the All England Club. He was defeated in the first round by David Prinosil (4-6 6-3 6-2 6-2). The following year, in 1995, he won his first match in the temple of tennis, against Paul Wekesa (7-6 6-0 6-4), before losing to the best grass court player of the 1990s, Pete Sampras (6-2 6-3 7-6).
“Gentleman Tim” became the centre of attention in 1996. That year, which marked the 60th anniversary of Fred Perry’s title (the last time a Briton had won Wimbledon), Henman reminded the crowd that British players could play tennis, by edging the French Open champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in the first round (7-6 6-3 6-7 4-6 7-5). He went as far as the quarterfinals, where he was defeated by Todd Martin (7-6 7-6 6-4).
In 1997, the relationship between Henman, Wimbledon and the British crowd went to the next level. This time, he became the hope of a nation: he was going to be the first Brit to triumph at home since Fred Perry. The turning point was a third-round match won 14-12 in the fifth set against Paul Haarhuis, which was unusually played on a Sunday, in front of crowd displaying an excitement rarely seen at the All England Club.
The next day, Henman confirmed his great shape by beating the defending champion Richard Krajicek (7-6 6-7 7-6 6-4), but he was brutally stopped by Michael Stich in the quarterfinals (6-3 6-2 6-4).
In the five following years, Tim Henman reached the semi-finals four times. In 1998 and 1999, he was stopped by the master of Wimbledon, Pete Sampras, both times in four sets. He was still young then and Sampras himself stated that he would triumph there one day. It was just a matter of time before the spectators sitting on the Aorangi Terrace, now known as Henman Hill, could witness him lift the trophy on the last Sunday of the tournament.
In 2001, the attitude of the British crowd and journalists towards him changed after his dramatic semi-final loss against Goran Ivanisevic (7-5 6-7 0-6 7-6 6-3). After this epic battle, spread over three days due to particularly English weather, between two players chasing their lifetime dream, the British opinion started to consider Gentleman Tim as too much of a gentleman.
In 2002, after he was defeated again in the semi-final, this time in straight sets by Lleyton Hewitt (7-5 6-1 7-5), the former national hero was now considered a loser. The British press did not have words hard enough to describe his mental weakness, forgetting that he had been the only British player to perform well regularly at Wimbledon in the last 60 years.
In 2003 and 2004, Tim Henman still reached the quarterfinals of his favourite tournament, losing to Sébastien Grosjean and Mario Ancic.
In 2007, when Wimbledon started, Henman had been declining for two years, after he left the top 10 in 2005. Ranked No 74 in the world, he still managed to defeat world no.22 Carlos Moya in the first round, in his last successful epic battle at the All England Club, 13-11 in the last set.
In the second round, after he came back from two sets to love, he collapsed in the fifth set against Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Although Tim Henman said in the press conference that he would be back the following year, he announced a few weeks later that the 2007 US Open would be his last tournament as a professional tennis player.
In his career, Tim Henman also reached the semi-final at the French and US Open in 2004, and thus became the only player in tennis history to reach six Grand Slam semi-finals without ever making it to the final. Reaching a highest ranking of world No 4, he claimed 11 titles on the tour, the most important at the Paris-Bercy Masters 1000 in 2003.
His epic runs at Wimbledon, which were never successful, left the image of a magnificent player who never managed to make this dream, and the dream of an entire nation, come true. His relationship with the fans was made of love and hate, as he had been the first British player in decades to create real excitement around tennis, but still remained a “loser” in the eyes of certain press.
Nevertheless, Tim Henman’s great achievements and great disappointments at Wimbledon somehow moved on to Andy Murray. The Scot, after being called a loser as well for years, and after having Henman Hill “renamed” as Murray Hill, fulfilled the dream of any British player by claiming the Wimbledon title twice, in 2013 and 2016.