Tim Henman, Wimbledon 2001

This article is part of a new series: what if? … rewriting tennis history. Enjoy the read and feel free to leave a comment below.

If you used to watch tennis in the late 90’s you surely remember Henmania taking over Wimbledon each summer:

“Henman made his name on Centre Court in 1996, when he defeated reigning French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and expectation has snowballed ever since. Fans wave, or paint Union Jacks on their face, and shout, ‘Come on, Tim!’ like he is one-man football team. Outside Centre Court hundreds more pile in front of a big screen on the side of Court One that has come to be known as Henman Hill.
Most fans don’t care how their hero performs the other fifty weeks of the year so long as he is up for it during Wimbledon fortnight. They believe the first six months of the season are spent leading up to it and the next six are spent recovering from it.
During those two weeks in the summer when Henmania sweeps through Britain, he gets more attention than David Beckham or the royal family, and most of them are in the Royal Box watching him. He becomes the focus of national hero worship as he progresses through the early rounds. Then he is beaten and derided as a serial loser, a choker, and becomes the butt of countless needless jokes.” [1]

Tim Henman reached Wimbledon semifinals 4 times (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002) and had his best chance to reach the final in 2001 when he faced Goran Ivanisevic in the semifinals. Henman had come back from a set down to take the lead by 2 sets to 1 before rain stopped play. Henman ended up losing this match played over 3 days.

After Henman’s split with long time coach David Felgate in 2001, David Lloyd suggested Henman should copy Davis Cup teammate Greg Rusedski by working with a former player for specific tournaments only (Rusedski worked briefly with 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash). Former Davis Cup captain Lloyd is known to say really stupid things at times ( just before the Davis Cup final last year, he claimed Andy Murray doesn’t give enough back to British tennis), but his advice to Henman totally made sense back then:

“I always thought that someone like Edberg should have been brought in long ago to help the team for the big tournaments. He had a similar style to Tim and the same kind of problems, like his serve suddenly going and losing his forehand. But he learned how to control it.” [2]

“Edberg had such a similar game to Tim’s. Tim’s serve still tends to go on a big point, and he tends to hit his forehand too hard. Edberg was like that. He could have helped Tim, because, when you’re playing someone like Agassi or Hewitt who plays their ground shots so well, you’ve got to get a big percentage of your first serves in.” [2]

As a coach, Edberg would have helped Henman improve technically, but he would also have helped him handle the pressure he faced every year at Wimbledon.

Lleyton Hewitt: “British tennis is waiting for a Grand Slam champion – and Tim is the best chance going. In the locker room, everyone knows the pressure and expectations that Tim has to deal with at this time of the year. And everyone respects how well he deals with it. The way he handles the pressue and comes back and plays extremely well at Wimbledon year after year is a credit to him. He’d fully deserve it if he comes away with the Wimbledon crown one day. Even if he never wins Wimbledon, it’s pretty amazing what Tim has done there.” [1]

Despite his pairs’s praise, Henman was considered too soft, and his nerve and fighting spirit were forever being questioned. Early in his career, Stefan was also accused of lacking a burning desire to win. Long-time coach Tony Pickard did transform him into a player who had “fire in his belly”. He showed nerves of steel when he was down 3-1 to Becker in the fifth set of their ’90 Wimbledon final, and proved all his critics wrong during his epic ’92 US Open run (each time down a break in the fifth set he beat Richard Krajicek, Ivan Lendl and Michael Chang).
As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.

“The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.” [3]

In 2012, Andy Murray hired Ivan Lendl as a coach, and their partnership has been successful, to say the least: two Grand Slam titles (US Open 2012, Wimbledon 2013) and an Olympic gold medal, among other titles.

“Without a doubt, to have Ivan Lendl by my side was a real bonus”

acknowledged Andy Murray after his first Grand Slam victory at the US Open in 2012, nine months after the beginning of his collaboration with the 8-time Grand Slam champion. [4]

The Murray-Lendl collaboration started a new trend of former Grand Slam champions working with today’s top champions (Becker-Djokovic, Federer-Edberg, Chang-Nishikori…):

“Even champions of the caliber of Federer or Djokovic can still improve and change things in their game, said Sam Sumyk. This is the advantage of high level, this is not just the technique of a forehand or backhand, there are lots of parameters that come into play. The help Edberg can bring to Federer or Becker to Djokovic is on details. It can be in all areas: technique, way of thinking, or state of mind.” [4]

“I think I can really bring a little something. And maybe that little something can bring back Roger to where he was some time ago.”[4] said Edberg.

And indeed Edberg’s influence was the biggest reason behind Federer‘s regain of form in 2014 and 2015, encouraging him to shorten rallies, and take control of the net.

“Federer is a different, better player than he was at the start of this year, and a lot of the credit for that goes to that iconic exponent of the serve-and-volley game, Edberg.” [5]

So what do you think, would Edberg have brought that little something to Henman’s game to help him reach new heights and win Wimbledon?

What if Stefan Edberg had coached Tim Henman?

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Sources:
[1] From Tim Henman, England’s finest by Simon Felstein – published in 2006
[2] Lloyd: Henman should be converting ability into titles, BBC Sport, 10 April, 2001
[3] From Love Thirty, three decades of champions by Rex Bellamy – published in 1990. Read more here.
[4] From Tennis Magazine, April 2014. Read more here.
[5] The man behind Roger Federer’s success by Peter Bodo for ESPN. Read the article here.