The Importance of Henman Hill
By Mike McIntyre
As the United Kingdom relishes Andy Murray's recent achievement at Wimbledon it is important to note the many contributing factors that helped him become the first British man in 77 years to win at the All England Club. Several key figures including family, friends and his close-knit coaching staff helped propel him towards what many felt was his destiny last Sunday. Murray did not win Wimbledon without a fantastic network surrounding him.
One key element that I feel has been overlooked in the few days since the biggest victory of his career is the path that was paved by fellow Brit Tim Henman and the phenomenon that transpires each year outside of Court One on what has been commonly referred to as Henman Hill. The importance of both Henman and of the iconic grassy area that was named after him cannot be forgotten. Henman Hill represents to British tennis fans the long journey back towards a Wimbledon title for one of their own and how it helped to galvanize an entire nation that has been waiting decades for this moment.
While Murray is the man who has finally ended the drought for a British Wimbledon champion that had existed since Fred Perry won in 1936, it was Tim Henman who first had to endure a career blanketed with intense media scrutiny as he valiantly tried to capture Wimbledon's classic golden trophy.
Henman had what many would consider to be an extremely successful career on the ATP World Tour that lasted from 1993 to 2007 and saw him achieve a career high ranking of number four in the world during the summer of 2002. Not known for his power, Henman relied instead on playing a serve-and-volley style that was an increasing rarity during a time where big serves and heavy groudstrokes were becoming more and more prevalent. Admittedly getting the most out of his talent, Henman would make the semifinals of three of the four Grand Slams and win eleven titles before retiring.
Despite failing to achieve the victory he and his country desired so badly, Henman provided his fans with a very real belief that Fred Perry's accomplishment at Wimbledon could be duplicated by a Brit. Making four quaterfinals (96, 97, 03, 04) and four semifinals (98, 99, 01, 02) is a feat that most would love to emulate at any tournament, let alone the All England Club. The closest he would come to making the finals was in 2001 when he lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic. If it were not for a rain interruption while he led two sets to one, it is widely believed that he would have advanced to play for the trophy against Pat Rafter.
Henman's stirring play each summer at Wimbledon helped bring his nation together both inside Centre Court where he normally played and also outside on the grassy hill that would come to bear his name. Fans who did not have a ticket would come in the thousands to sit on the lawn and watch on a giant television screen that was nearly as large as the atmosphere that surrounded it. Holding up to approximately 5,000 fans who would line up for upwards of four hours during the second week of play to nab a spot, Henman Hill became a symbol of hope for British tennis enthusiasts who wanted to be as close as they could possibly get to where the action happened.
In recent years as Andy Murray has gradually inched closer to realizing what Henman could not, tennis pundits and fans alike have begun to refer to Henman Hill by a new name - Murray Mound. Many feel that Murray's victory will now elicit a permanent name change as a sign of respect and a tribute to his accomplishment. While one could certainly understand how many would support such a switch, I believe that Henman still deserves to retain this place as an acknowledgement of the way he helped pave the way for Murray to attain his Wimbledon triumph.
While I'm not claiming that Henman's career was responsible for Murray's decision to become a tennis player or that it inspired him to follow in his footsteps, there is clearly somewhat of a guiding role that the former had on the latter. While their games are quite different, Henman bore the brunt of the enormous expectations placed upon him by the British media and gave Murray someone to learn from in that respect. Murray always spoke very highly of Henman and made sure to give credit to him when asked about the influence he had on him while growing up. After defeating Henman in Cincinnati in 2006 Murray said the following:
"He was a guy that I looked up to. I watched him for maybe eight, nine years when I was growing up, playing at Wimbledon...He's one of the - regardless of what people say because he hasn't won a Grand Slam - he's one of the best tennis players of the last ten years, and that's 100% sure. There's no denying that. You can't argue with it, if you look at his statistics. Tim is someone that I've looked up to immensely."
Though not able to win the title himself, Henman must feel some sense of pride that his understudy Murray has been able to get the job done. After commentating for the BBC again this year, Henman was part of Murray's inner circle that enjoyed the post-match celebrations in the locker room - another sign of their continued connection.
Henman Hill is the least we can leave for Tim to claim as his own and to give recognition to someone who always represented his country with pride. It serves as a reminder of tougher times for British tennis and the hard work that Henman put in year after year to get as much out of his career as he possibly could. It is a reminder of the way that the nation's tennis fans united each summer to cheer on their hero with all the energy, enthusiasm and passion that they could muster. Just because he did not win the ultimate prize does not mean that he did not make those fans feel like winners themselves throughout much of the tournament each summer.
Asked if the hill would retain his name at his final Wimbledon in 2007, Henman replied with a smile on his face by saying, "if you keep writing about it, it will." Let's give Murray all the recognition he deserves for rising to the occasion against Novak Djokovic and performing under pressure that none of us will truly ever be able to comprehend. Pile on all the parades, lifelike sculptures, ceremonies with political elite, praise from adoring fans and endorsement opportunities that will keep his family comfortable for generations to come - but leave Henman the tribute of Henman Hill. Something that each year will allow us to remember the part he played in setting the stage for this huge accomplishment to take place and of the importance of succession planning that every nation aspires to provide to the next generation of tennis heroes.