Exclusive Tim Henman interview: My fears for how lockdown will damage kids

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Simon Briggs
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Exclusive Tim Henman interview: My fears for how lockdown will damage kids - AFP
Exclusive Tim Henman interview: My fears for how lockdown will damage kids - AFP

Where will the greatest untold cost of the pandemic lie? In the billions churned out by desperate governments to stabilise their economies, or the loss of everyday human contact for our youngest and most impressionable children?

Both will leave a long-term scar, but Tim Henman – who considers his own tennis scholarship to Reed’s School to have been the defining opportunity of his life – is focusing on the human element.

Having co-signed a high-profile letter in March that questioned the use of masks in schools, Henman remains disturbed by the way blackboards have been replaced by screens, and sport has all but disappeared from many curriculums.

"I’ve been running a foundation for the last six years that works with children and the need has never been greater," Henman said. "My daughters are 18, 16 and 13. They’re lucky that they have been able to get on with online learning and are old enough to keep in touch with their friends on the phone or on Zoom or whatever.

"But others haven’t had the necessary IT equipment, they’ve not had the social interaction, they’re living in inner cities where it’s hard to find outdoor space.

"As for the masks, I am no expert but I think it’s very hard for the young to have their masks on and be learning and communicating. I am not sure the science supports it.

"The whole situation is very sad, and it’s going to cause a lot of damage to people’s mental health. There are going to be more and more children needling support going forward. I certainly feel concerned for the next generation."

Henman is redoubling his efforts to help through his foundation, which focuses on giving children access to sport or science and technology, even though the pandemic has put paid to his regular Pro-Am fundraiser at the Hurlingham Club 10 days before Wimbledon.

This would normally feature Andy Murray with a rotating supporting cast that often includes two of Henman’s leading nemeses: Lleyton Hewitt and Goran Ivanisevic.

His other commitments include a seat on the All England Club committee, which recently announced a starting point of 25 per cent attendances for this year’s Championships, plus compulsory bubble hotels for all the players and their entourages.

"It’s not something that Wimbledon want to do," he said. "It’s something they have to do. Players are very lucky to have these playing opportunities."

The All England Club has made changes to how Wimbledon will be run this year - REUTERS
The All England Club has made changes to how Wimbledon will be run this year - REUTERS

Henman believes that most members of the tennis locker-room will soon be well advanced with their vaccinations. The jabs will offer a little extra freedom – a vital consideration in a sport where you need to be able to move freely around the world as well as the court.

He too is booked in for his vaccine and is expecting a reaction, given that he contracted Covid-19 around a year ago and lost his sense of taste and smell for a fortnight. "I am not into any conspiracy theories," he says. "I hope that we’re all moving in the right direction because it’s been massively challenging."

Yet while Henman might be a small-c conservative by instinct, he has not been convinced by the government’s handling of the crisis. "I think it was massively important to protect the elderly and the vulnerable and those in hospitals and care homes. I don’t think that was done at the beginning."

As for lockdowns: "Again, I am no expert, but I don’t necessarily think that they have worked. Look at other countries, and states like Florida, they have had absolutely no lockdown and they seem to be in the same position as us. And my fear is that the borrowing that has been provided by the government is going to have to be paid back. The consequences will be felt for years to come."

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Above all, he feels for the children who won’t have his opportunities on the sports field. "As a young kid, I was playing football, cricket, rugby, but I already knew that tennis was going to be my thing, from the moment when I was six and my mum took me to Wimbledon for the first time. Then when I was nine I was going to Heston to be coached by Onnie Parun, this eccentric Kiwi who played the quarter-finals of Wimbledon a couple of times.

"I was so lucky to have all those opportunities. But then you look at the physical activities made available to children in schools. I’d like to double the amount of sport played in a week from two to four hours.

"I believe that has a huge benefit both mentally, physically and socially. The more physical exercise, the more kids can be outside, getting fresh air, interacting, and staying off their devices."

  • The Tim Henman Foundation’s #FindingYourSpark campaign launched on Tuesday.