2008: Britless Tennis

Ali Jaffer 25 January 2008

I like tennis. Britain likes tennis. And Britain loves Wimbledon. Given the latest goings on at the first major of the year I can’t help but ask: come SW19, whatever will we do without Tim Henman?

The unkempt Scot, I hear you cry. He’ll keep it alive long after Sue Barker has desperately rummaged through the outside courts for the first three days looking forlornly for some nobody who’s adopted citizenship of this great nation on the basis of some distant relative’s fleeting visit. He’ll bring us that long awaited glory and with it sweep the nation’s sporting accolades – the English will feel British and the Scots will feel Scottish and it’ll all be marvelous. The truth, as I see it anyway, is a little different. Murray Mount will never quite be the same as Henman Hill, because while we, (and by we I mean the media) will hype it up to a ridiculous degree and tip him to win the event after a four set struggle against someone distinctly average in the second round, all the while not realising that Andy Murray lacks the style, panache and fitness that Tim Henman had in his prime.

To my mind there are three not entirely distinct strategies for success in the world of professional tennis. You can employ the increasingly rare serve and volley tactic and be exceptionally good at finishing off points from the net, like the Henmans, Navratilovas and Edbergs of this world. You could be blessed like the Federers and Samprases and have the innate ability to exercise an unbelievable combination of accuracy, flair and speed both with the serve, groundstroke and volley.

Or you can hit the ball so powerfully from the back of the court, so consistently that nine times out of ten you’ll grind your opponents painfully into the clay (or cement, or whatever) like the Nadals, Hewitts and Williams’.

Andy Murray, our beacon, is not a serve-and-volleyer. He’s good, but not so naturally talented so as to be able to breeze through the first week and a half without batting an eyelid like those in my second category. Rather, to win any grand slam, he’ll have to grind and unfortunately there are others who are better than him at doing it.

Take this week as an example. Lleyton Hewitt’s 4am marathon which saw him edge out Marcos Baghdatis was emblematic of the way he performed throughout his career, dogged until the very end. Djokovic (ironically Hewitt’s conquerer), only 20, and already a grand slam finalist will be Nadal’s principal adversary when Federer’s eventual fallibility comes to light. Murray, (precisely a week older than Djokovic) isn’t, and at this rate won’t ever be in Tennis’ highest echelon.

Murray’s inconsistency, his “Brad Gilbert doesn’t know what he’s doing” attitude and his propensity to injury that rivals Darren Anderton’s bodes ill.

Last week I predicted Nadal to win the Australian Open (Lent 2008, Issue 1, page 29) – and I still stand by that. The reigning champion will obviously have something to say about that. If, and it’s a big if, he is coming to the end of his dominance he’s doing it like a true champion ought. A 10-8 final set victory against Tipsarevic in Round 3 emblematic of the fact that he has deserved and does deserve all the praise he gets. He can grind if needed.

Regardless, the next few days, and months, will intrigue; even if Andy Murray is nowhere in sight.

Ali Jaffer