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06 Jul 2012

Andy Murray has a friend in Tim Henman, linked as they are by a common burden not entirely of their own making, and their conversation in a quiet corner of the All England Club before the Scot plays Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon semi-finals on Friday could help him rewrite a chapter of tennis history. Murray, for the fourth year in a row, is two wins away from the prize that has eluded everyone from these islands for 76 years.

Henman is anxious not to intrude. He maintains he was never interested in coaching Murray and has enormous respect for the man who took up the job six months ago, Ivan Lendl. Old Stone Face, inscrutable behind his dark glasses in Murray's box as all around him go crazy, has given the world No4 an edgier, more switched-on mien, noticeably at these championships, where Murray's eyes have blazed in adversity and when going for the kill.

Henman, whose hill Murray has just about inherited, will chat briefly with him before he goes on Centre Court, as he has done many times since he was a teenage prodigy. They might talk about reaching four Wimbledon semi-finals, which both have now done after Murray's tough win over David Ferrer on Wednesday; perhaps they will discuss Tsonga, whom Henman thinks is eminently beatable; maybe, even Novak Djokovic, whom Murray came so close to beating at the same stage in Melbourne.

Or he might just pour himself a cup of tea and offer a few quiet Home Counties words of encouragement.

"I will go and see him beforehand and wish him good luck," Henman said, looking down on the green lawns from the roof of the BBC compound, which is his workplace for a fortnight every summer. "I have chatted to him a bit. But he has his team around him and I speak to him as a friend, not someone wanting to give input. I know what it is like on the other side of the fence. There are so many opinions coming in, and the last thing you want is another one."

He will not weigh him down with talk of winning the title. "The only thing he is focusing on is the way that he wants to play Tsonga. The gameplan for him is much more straightforward. The gameplan for Ferrer [whom he beat in four sets in the quarters] was hard: how do you break him down? He is so good. And Andy did such a good job of that. Against Tsonga it is a bit more clearcut: just keep doing what you are doing. His attitude has been great, he served very well at the right times [against Ferrer] and his percentages were going up towards the end of the match, which is pretty rare. Keep being aggressive with the two-handed backhand; it is one of the best in the game. Against [Marin] Cilic, when it looked like it was going to rain, he was like, 'I better hurry up here', and he just started hitting winners. I know if I had a backhand like that I would try and hit winners every time."

You could sense the frustration in Henman's voice. "We do go back quite a long way. I have really enjoyed watching these scenarios unfold, having been through this process myself. I do think he is better equipped to go further, because he is a better player than I ever was. Those atmospheres and the matches on Centre Court … the roof adds a different element to it. It is great to see him playing so well at the right time because there was obviously a lot of chat beforehand about his back and his loss of form, losing in the first round at Queen's. He has done such a good job of maintaining his focus and composure away from his matches. I can remember times when there is so much speculation but he has put himself in a good position there."

Like many former players in commentary boxes, Henman was hard on Murray over the "drama queen" interlude. He has come to recognise he is more the King of Drama – and he thinks Lendl has been crucial in that process.

"I can imagine it is not that easy to shout and scream at someone like Ivan. I don't think he would hang around long. But I also think that Andy has matured. This isn't new to him, he has played a lot of tennis now, he is 25. It is one of those areas where he understands that it just doesn't do him any favours. When you are playing matches, with the demands both mentally and physically, you can't waste it. He has three unbelievable examples of players in front of him in Djokovic, Nadal and Federer who don't do it, and he has probably learned from them as well.

"When you have someone in your corner who has been to 20 grand slam finals and who lost his first four, just that voice of wisdom and reassurance for Andy will be great to have. I really hope he can take advantage of that. It will be great to throw something different into the equation. He has got a new coach in his corner and if he were to get to the final then I think that would be a big advantage for him."

Support for Murray this year has been noticeably more vocal, bordering on full-blown affection.

"I think he's been a bit unfortunate with the way things panned out in the early days with the England/Scotland thing. But he's a phenomenal player and a really, really good person. I hope that people can, if there is a question mark in their mind, really get behind him. This is an unbelievable opportunity for him."

Henman had four of those here. He did not deliver, but he tried his best. It was not his fault the best of British was so long ago.

"I've heard Fred Perry and Bunny Austin talked about for long enough," he said, "and I'd be pretty happy for that conversation to end."

The Nearly Man thinks it is time to bury some history. He could be right.


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