Tim Henman interview: 'I felt numb after Goran Ivanisevic loss - it took four or five days to sink in'

Tim Henman in action against Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 2001 - EPA
Tim Henman in action against Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 2001 - EPA

British sport loves a “What if?” What if Gareth Southgate hadn’t missed that penalty? What if Mike Gatting hadn’t played that reverse-sweep? And here is another jagged old scar: what if the heavens hadn’t opened when Tim Henman was leading Goran Ivanisevic in the Wimbledon semi-final on July 7, 2001?

Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten tennis’s greatest cliffhanger. For a decade or so after his first Wimbledon in 1994, Henman’s annual pursuit of the Gentleman’s Singles Trophy gripped the nation; as essential a water-cooler topic as This Life or the Spice Girls.

Match by match, Henman grew into part of the Wimbledon furniture – even to the point of acquiring his own Hill. Did we really believe he would win the tournament one day? We hoped so, certainly. But he was a polite sort of lad, who came across as wide-eyed and underpowered when he faced Pete Sampras.

Then 2001 happened. Sampras’s tilt at a fifth straight Wimbledon title came to grief in the fourth round, against a handsome Swiss chap with a ponytail. We would hear more of Roger Federer later, but at the time, Britain’s sporting focus was utterly parochial. Here was Henman’s big chance, and he himself had received a “get-out-of-jail” card from the weather that same day.

“I was playing Todd Martin on the second Monday,” Henman recalled, when I rang to discuss ancient history. “I was third match on Centre as usual, and I was sitting around in the locker-room waiting and stretching. Without realising it, I had sat under an air-conditioning vent. When I went on court, and we were loosening up our serves, my back went into spasm.

“I got the trainer on to put hot cream on, but I was really restricted on serve. It was uncomfortable. It was a distraction. And when we stopped because of bad light, I was down by two sets to one. That night I got a lot of work on my back, then came back and played two really good sets. So when everyone says ‘Oh, you were so unlucky against Goran,’ they have selective memories. But for the bad light, Martin would have beaten me in four.”

Next up was Federer, still only 19. For Henman, this was a second stroke of fortune. Match-ups are everything in tennis, and he consistently dominated the young Federer, who was still a fluffy-haired crowd-pleaser rather than the fully fledged champion he would soon become. A four-set victory duly ensued.

Henman didn’t mind playing Ivanisevic, either. In four previous meetings, he had never lost. “I felt like I read his serve pretty well,” he recalls. His former coach David Felgate also recalls that Henman’s backhand return – an old-fashioned chip-cum-block – was one of the strongest parts of his game, perfectly suited to dealing with big-serving lefties like Ivanisevic.

In 2001, though, Ivanisevic had donned an invisible cloak of destiny. His ranking was low – at No 125 – because of a persistent bout of shoulder trouble, but he had been granted a wild card by the All England Club and was playing with intimidating freedom.

“Despite my winning record against Goran, I knew that he was going to be dangerous,” Henman said. “The grass was quicker in those days and he had beaten some good players [including the previous year’s US Open champion Marat Safin and another future major-winner in Andy Roddick] to get there.

“When the match started, I felt like I was playing catch-up all the time. The momentum was with him. He was holding serve comfortably, and having half-chances to break. But I fought my way into a second-set tie-break, got a set point and finished it off. Which made it one set all when it should have been 2-0. When I glanced across the net at him, I could see he knew it. He wasn’t a rookie. He had played in three Wimbledon finals already.

“That’s when things turned in my favour. In the third set, I made him play a lot, and in his frustration he was closing down the net too eagerly. I hit a bunch of lobs and only lost six points in that 6-0 set, which took 14 minutes. It was the quickest set of my entire career.”

The rain arrived at 6.18pm on Friday, with Henman leading 2-1 in the fourth set. He was hard-headed about it. “It wasn’t ideal, of course,” he says now. “But it wasn’t the end of the world either.” In these days before the erection of the Centre Court roof, few of his Wimbledon campaigns passed without delay. To my astonishment, he told me that he always slept deeply during the fortnight, impervious to the hysteria surrounding him.

The semi-final was disrupted due to persistent rain at SW19 - PA
The semi-final was disrupted due to persistent rain at SW19 - PA

But even if Henman was unfazed by the interruption, it still allowed Ivanisevic to clear his head, like a groggy boxer being saved by the bell. “He was able to regroup mentally and refresh physically,” said Henman of Saturday’s play, which consisted of only 51 minutes and 15 games because of more infuriatingly persistent drizzle.

No service breaks were claimed during that short session. Crucially, though, Ivanisevic snatched the fourth set on a hard-fought tie-break. If the Centre Court roof would have helped Henman, so might Hawk-Eye, judging by a creaky BBC replay. According to this admittedly inconclusive evidence, one of Ivanisevic’s wide aces appeared to land a couple of inches beyond the sideline.

And so it was back again on the Sunday, for the third day of combat. (The whole saga occupied 45hrs 9mins, which is only marginally shorter than the famous John Isner-Nicolas Mahut epic of 2010.) Now Ivanisevic was leading 3-2. Henman held his serve, and had a glimpse of a chance at 0-30 in the next game, only for Ivanisevic to slam the door shut in a blur of aces.

Serving again, Henman faltered ever so slightly – notably with a double-fault at deuce – and was broken for only the second time in the match. Ivanisevic – who would later say that “today was a match of the nerves, nothing to do with tennis” – promptly served out for a 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3 win that, thanks to the prevalence of one- or two-shot points, comprised only 3hr 2min of actual matchplay.

Ivanisevic celebrates after his five-set victory - THE TELEGRAPH
Ivanisevic celebrates after his five-set victory - THE TELEGRAPH

“Four games and the match was over,” Henman says now. “I was going back to the locker-room and sitting there having just played 15 minutes of tennis. I was saying to myself ‘Is that it?’

“Normally there’s a big build-up of adrenaline and nervous tension, and the physical exertion of a long match. But this was massively anti-climactic way to finish: 15 minutes and you’re out of Wimbledon. I felt very numb afterwards. It took four or five days for it to sink in: the disappointment of the match and the opportunity that had got away.”

Even now, Henman finds himself being regularly drawn back 20 years. “I was in London yesterday for a meeting,” he told me. “I got into two black cabs, one there and one back, and both drivers talked about the Ivanisevic match. It’s definitely the match that I get asked about the most.”

Doesn’t it ever get annoying? “No, because I’m massively proud of what I achieved. That first cab driver looked at me and said ‘I cannot believe you’re getting into my cab. I am not sure you will want to get into my cab.’ Then he talked with the most incredible knowledge about the matches I played. He was working at a concrete factory and he said they used to down tools when I was playing.”

And what about the thwarted ambition? Remember that Henman was to the manor born. His great-grandmother Ellen Mary Stawell Browne had been the first woman to serve overarm at Wimbledon, while his grandparents played mixed doubles there in the 1950s. From the first time he visited the All England Club, as a six-year-old transfixed by Bjorn Borg, he knew he had a goal to aim for.

Crowds watching Henman at the 2001 tournament from Henman Hill - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Crowds watching Henman at the 2001 tournament from Henman Hill - JULIAN SIMMONDS

“My ultimate ambition was to win Wimbledon,” he told me. “I think I was good enough to win Wimbledon, but there were people better than me, in general or on the day. That’s the reality of it. And when you go a bit deeper into it, success is about maximising your potential. If you had said to me at 19, sign this document and you can spend the next ten years on the tour, I’d have bitten your arm off.

“I did a good job of just massively enjoying it. It was just the best time. Sometimes my kids might see something on YouTube which conveys what the atmosphere was like when I was the third match on Centre – it was off the charts how good it was.

“Okay, the days after I had lost – you would probably have to ask my wife, but I am sure I wasn’t a bundle of fun. Still, my character is pretty level-headed – when I’m not going great I’ve never been one to get carried away and big headed, and likewise if I’m not going well I don’t feel sorry for myself. I just get on with things. Sometimes other people have much more of an issue of me not winning Wimbledon than I do myself.”