Today the British public gets ready to say goodbye to a public figure that has represented and defined them to the outside world for over a decade, all the while generating mixed feelings at home.
He stepped into the public arena with much promise and fanfare, promising to revitalize a nation’s flagging performance. But he could never quite live up to the expectation he generated, and one big failure haunts him. Though he’s defended himself, the words have rung hollow in the face of an increasingly grim reality. People went so far as to anticipate his departure: here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?
But now, at the eleventh hour, he has one last chance to salvage his reputation.
I’m talking about Tony Blair, of course – who were you thinking of?
Still, as Blair goes off to try his hand as special envoy to the Middle East, Tim Henman might have taken something away from the sendoff given to the Prime Minister. Blair, an avid tennis player, timed his departure well in one respect – he’s now free to attend the second week of Wimbledon, much like his notorious svengali Alastair Campbell did a few years ago when he left the political life.
The cameras were camped outside Blair’s doorway at 10 Downing Street, and the surreal sight of the Prime Minister’s exercise bike being loaded onto the moving van greeted late risers who switched on the TV Wednesday morning.
“When I woke up the televised the moving van was literally pulling up, and they followed the moving van down the street when he’s moving his crap out,” said Roddick. “I watched about ten minutes of the aerial shot of the moving van coming down the street. I thought that was, um, enthralling.”
But all the piquant unsentimentality of the occasion showed itself most clearly in recorded goodbye messages shown on the BBC’s political programme later in the morning. The one or two gushing ones were in the minority.
“Goodbye, Tony. I’d like to say that I knew you well. Alas, I didn’t.”
”I voted for you in 1997, but we’ve kind of parted ways since then... Still, good luck with your properties or whatever else...”
“Goodbye, Mr. Blair. Shame you didn’t leave sooner.”
They don’t mince their words around here, as Henman well knows. Is there any more famous headline in tennis than “No pressure, Timbo, but choke now and we’ll never forgive you”?
And perhaps they never will forgive him, but the lack of a fairytale ending doesn’t obscure what a riveting read his Wimbledon career makes. His overall winning percentage at the event is 77 percent, compared to 64 percent overall. He’s now played 12 five-setters here, the latest a 13-11 in the fifth thriller against Moya that was suspended overnight at 5-5 and finally finished on Tuesday. It brought back memories of the famous 2001 semifinal against Goran Ivanisevic that was played over three days. In retrospect, that was the closest he came to reaching the final Sunday.
But it brought back other memories too – the shocking struggle against Jarrko Nieminen in the first round in 2005, followed by a replay last year against Robin Soderling. A mighty 9-7 in the fifth battle in 1997 against Jim Courier, another master of the Wimbledon five-setter. And his first on-court burst into prominence in 1996, when he blew a two set lead against Yevgeny Kafelnikov before pulling it out in five.
Even in that long list, the win over Moya ranks as an important one. During the previous two years, Henman had played very much in the shadow of Andy Murray – an obsolete model left chugging until its newer, snazzier successor was fully installed. This time, Murray is out with an injured wrist and Henman, for the first time in a long time, came through against an opponent he wasn’t entirely supposed to beat. The tiny possibility of a Jimmy Connors-like run has expanded slightly.
The tennis was only sometimes great, but the jagged points and mounting tension gave the contest an operatic quality that left a good portion of the country drained and trembling.
It’s not over yet, of course – there’s the second round to play, if the rain ever stops, and he’s a long way from saying this is his last Wimbledon. [Later: As we now know, Henman lost his second round match to Feliciano Lopez in yet another five-setter 7-6(3), 7-6(5), 3-6, 2-6, 6-1.] But it does help ensure that no one will bid Henman farewell with, “Shame you didn’t leave earlier.”