Always one to produce his best with the green turf under foot, four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist Tim Henman is modest in his assessment of how he’d stack up against the current crop of grass-court kings.
“I wouldn’t fancy my chances,” the former world No.4 said.
And for the hopefuls looking to rock the boat to claim the honours at the All England Club during the coming Wimbledon-Olympics stretch, Britain’s former top player is equally pragmatic about their chances.
While the top three have dominated Wimbledon for the past nine years, then-No.2 ranked Rafael Nadal in 2008 is the only man ranked in the top four at an Olympic Games to have won singles gold.
“I can’t see a winner coming outside of the top four-ranked men at both the Olympics and Wimbledon,” Henman said.
“It’s phenomenal how (Novak) Djokovic, (Rafael) Nadal and (Roger) Federer have dominated but then you look at (Andy) Murray being in five Grand Slam semis in a row; you know the top three, I don’t think it’s really fair to put Murray in that group, but it’s not fair to put him in the field with the rest of the pack either.”
Henman spoke to Wimbledon.com after hitting with rising British juniors, Josh Ward-Hibbert, 18, Emma Devine, 16, and wheelchair tennis player Richard Green, 20, as a mentor for the Jaguar Academy of Sport.
When pressed to nominate dark horses for this year’s extended grass-court stretch Henman singled out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych as the best of the rest, with Milos Raonic and John Isner further outsiders.
“Given the nature of Isner’s and Raonic’s game, if they get in a good rhythm on their serve they’re very tough to play against, especially at the Olympics where it will only be best-of-three set matches,” Henman said.
Despite 11 tour titles and six Grand Slam semi-finals, one of Henman’s proudest moments came at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games where he and Neil Broad secured a silver medal for Great Britain after losing to Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge in the men’s doubles final.
“It was really unexpected. I mean, I’m a massive sports fan but I grew up and never thought about playing in the Olympics,” Henman said.
“My ranking had gone up, I was probably top 50 at the time and was only 21 (in 1996). If I’m honest I went into that Olympics probably thinking about a lot of the other sports.
“I was just so excited to be a part of it, you know going to watch track and field, rowing, cycling and swimming, but I was obviously there to compete and to come away with a silver medal was amazing. It was a real bonus, I think, but one of the achievements I’m most proud of.”
Tennis has established a new legacy since being re-introduced, first as an exhibition event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, before officially being recognised at Seoul in 1988.
Henman was adamant the Olympic tennis movement had gained momentum.
“One hundred per cent. Why do all the players say Wimbledon is the greatest tournament? It’s because of the history and tradition,” he said.
“When tennis came into the Olympics I think a lot of people were a bit sceptical and then about 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney – that was an amazing Olympics – more and more people played and by 2008 you’ve got Nadal winning gold, Federer wining gold in the doubles.
“He (Federer) has talked about it for so long, how playing the Olympics at Wimbledon on grass, to win gold would be one of his greatest achievements and then you look at the entry field. It’s everybody who’s up there playing.”
With Nadal inching ever closer to Federer’s record haul of 16 Grand Slam singles titles after snaring a seventh French Open crown, Henman was in awe of the Spaniard’s resolve.
“His achievements at Roland Garros are just incredible,” he said.
“It’s amazing to think he’s 26, he’s won 11 Slams, Borg was 25 or 26 and he’d won 11 Slams, but that’s when he quit. You can never imagine Rafa saying `that’s it’.
“He’s very, very good on grass, particularly as the conditions have changed so much. Now when you look at the nature of the rallies on grass the ball bounces so high, the ball is heavier, the courts are harder. He’s won Wimbledon twice and been in the final three other times already.”
“How many’s he going to win? It doesn’t really look like he’s going to lose at the French any time soon.”
Henman echoed the chorus of support that the current standard of men’s tennis was at its strongest yet but nominated the Federer-Nadal rivalry as still the most compelling, especially considering such contrasting playing styles.
“It’s got greater history than the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry,” he said. “I mean the Nadal-Djokovic final in Australia was incredible but they still haven’t had the same type of matches.”
Should a repeat of such a final at either Wimbledon or the Olympics eventuate in coming months, though, Henman would gladly rethink his opinion.