British hold breath for Henman Latest Wimbledon win again raises dreams of home-grown titlist

June 28, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- This is what Tim Henman does to Wimbledon.

The great hope of British tennis walks onto Centre Court and the normally polite spectators put down their teacups and start roaring. He cracks a forehand and the cheers stream down. He wins a match and Union flags and bandannas are unfurled.

Yesterday, the Henman express rolled into the third round of Wimbledon and right over Byron Black of Zimbabwe, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

For the third straight year, Henman is in the round of 16, and, for the third straight year, hope springs among the British that their long drought in fielding a Wimbledon men's champion could at last be ending.

"I'm through to the fourth round, and you can't have too many complaints about that," Henman said. "It hasn't been an easy path."

So far, this has been a weird Wimbledon, overshadowed by soccer's World Cup in France and overwhelmed by England's unpredictable summer weather.

Yesterday, there was rain, thunder, lightning, a double rainbow and even a smoky fire at an apartment building overlooking the courts.

"We've seen everything," Monica Seles said.

As the smoke blew across the grounds, players looked to the sky in confusion. Police even told the organizers to stop a match in the fourth set between Todd Martin and Todd Woodbridge that was being played on the court closest to the apartment house.

Martin asked a tournament official: "Can't we just clear the crowd? Who says we have to play in front of people?"

The police wouldn't budge, and the players left the court. Only half the scheduled singles matches were completed, which means Wimbledon will be behind schedule when play resumes Monday. The players and tournament organizers will take their traditional rest day today.

But for the British, what matters is this: Henman is winning.

The last Briton to win Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936. A statue of Perry stands at the front gates of the All England Club, a reminder of past glory and a rebuke to generations of losing British players.

But Henman is fueled by a desire to win and inspired by history. His family belongs to the All England Club, and he was schooled on its lush courts. And, after years in the spotlight, he is adept at handling the pressure that comes with being an Englishman at Wimbledon. His match against Black took two days to complete, but Henman wasn't flustered.

After the match, Henman was asked, quite seriously: "Do you approach it 'I must not let a nation down?' "

Henman smiled for a moment and said: "The nation doesn't come into it. In an individual sport, you have to play for yourself."

Someone else asked him to compare his Wimbledon success to the fortunes of the English soccer team, which advanced to the second round of the World Cup.

"They were under great pressure, and they needed to come up with a good performance," he said. "So, we're both through to the 16s."

But like England's soccer team, Henman faces a tough task to win an elusive title.

Still, he's the home-court favorite, and sometimes he gets the close line calls. Black was infuriated by one crucial call in yesterday's match.

"I'm having a hard enough time just dealing with the crowd, you know," Black said. "I'm feeling pretty lonely out there."

Black said Henman has a chance to win Wimbledon in the future.

"I don't know if he's ready this year, but maybe in the next years he will be," Black said. "He is definitely playing a lot better than he was last year. He's picking up volleys a lot better. He's closing the net off and he's playing a lot smarter grass-court tennis."

Henman will meet U.S. Open champion Pat Rafter in the fourth round. Henman relishes the prospect of playing a serve-and-volley specialist for the first time in the tournament.

"I'm sure it will be a good atmosphere," Henman said.

Despite yesterday's rain, a good chunk of the round of 16 took shape.

The most intriguing fourth-round matchup will pair big-serving Australians Mark Philippoussis and Jason Stoltenberg. Philippoussis rolled past Italian qualifier Daniele Bracciali, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, and Stoltenberg outlasted fellow Aussie Mark Woodforde, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

In the day's lone upset, Jan Siemerink defeated No. 11 seed Jonas Bjorkman, 7-6 (8-6), 4-7, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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