Tim Henman's reputation reformed by Amazon Prime TV and Emma Raducanu

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Tim Henman and Emma Raducanu
Tim Henman and Emma Raducanu

A truly great sporting moment captures our attention and hearts, and it is unsurprising that people want a piece of the story for themselves. Sometimes this can be opportunistic and tiresome, for instance people wanting to score their political points about Emma Raducanu’s heritage. But sometimes a figure at the edge of the picture rightly, humbly, receives some of the reflected glory. That has been the case with Tim Henman, whose part in this story has cast him in a fresher, kinder light.

The sporting public has had a mixed relationship with Henman for a long time now. In his playing days, he was saddled with a sort of very English support: at first, encouragement and happy surprise that the country, at last, had a Wimbledon contender. But this soured. Starting from 1998, he reached four semis there in five years, and the encouraging, hopeful “Come on Tims” took on a different tenor, changing into frustrated, peevish bellows of “Come ON Henman”.

It was as if the crowd and British sport was unable to contain its frustration with him. Why doesn’t he just win? He must be mentally weak. As if you could be ranked number four in the world, with all that weight of expectation in your home tournament, and be a bottler. Rain and an inspired Goran Ivansevic ended one challenge, but largely it was the unbeatable Pete Sampras who formed the rock upon which Henman’s hopes were dashed again and again. Henman was charged with being too nice, not ruthless enough, a bit of a wet lettuce. None of this was ever true or fair: he was extremely good, he just came up against someone even better. His generally sunny, kindly manner was held up as a weakness, particularly when cast in relief against Sir Andy Murray’s grim, sardonic grit. Nice but Tim.

A post-playing career in the media has seen him potter pleasantly enough through cosy chats with Sue Barker and affable assessments of players, without ever really making the viewer sit up and take notice. One of the many pleasures, then, of Raducanu’s Saturday heroics was to see Henman so thrilled, so engaged, a part of her story, a mentor and a supporter at once. It was great sporting TV. It might be that the fresher Amazon environment, and the coverage has been excellent, brings more out of Henman than the comfortable, familiar BBC role.

With Murray and now Raducanu doing what Henman couldn’t quite manage, an unintended consequence has been a reappraisal of the Oxfordshire man, not as an also-ran but as a harbinger, a way-paver, a John the Baptist. It was fantastic to see him courtside, urging Raducanu on, and illuminating for viewers the magnitude of her achievement. He surely knows better than almost anyone alive just how hard it is. He has been modest about his own role in her story but it is not to be underestimated, nor is his influence on the British tennis players that emerged after his own retirement.

To list all the charming and inspiring things about Raducanu would take all day, but among her many qualities is a respect for her profession’s history and for those who came before. As she said: “It means so much to have Virginia [Wade] here and also Tim. To have such British legends and icons – for me to follow in their footsteps, it really helps and definitely gave me the belief that I could actually do it.”

Henman’s post-match interview with her was a lovely moment, as were the Amazon Prime Video shots of him pointing at her, saluting her. Channel 4, with 9.2million viewers, backed itself a winner here, and the impact for British tennis is incalculable. But, although he hasn’t asked for it, it has been heartwarming to see the outpouring of affection for Henman over the last couple of days: a decent person, a British sporting hero in his own right, and a big part of one the sports stories of the age. Come on Tim.

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