Nirmal Shekar

Federer leaves Borg behind with his 42nd consecutive win on grass

London: There is glory in chasing doomed dreams. There is valour in pursuing dreams destined to decay and die. There is manliness in tilting at windmills, even if some might label the act tragicomic rather than heroic.

It's a bit like wooing a beautiful, unattainable woman. For all the flirting and the occasional positive signals, you know from the beginning that there is never going to be a happily-ever-after, that your proposal will never be accepted.

Yet, the thrill is in the unending pursuit, no matter the soul-numbing inevitability of the ending. The journey itself is the destination.

Ask Tim Henman. He knows all about unrealisable dreams. A sort of King Lear character dominating a Wimbledon sub-plot that long running annual soap opera within a soap opera Henman has a Ph.D. in the art of turning pain and frustration and repeated failure into necessary items in a recipe for heroism.

Being in the hunt

Through 13 long summers, through a million (pardon the exaggeration) rain delays and tens of millions of missed heartbeats in every corner of England, Henman has managed to keep himself in the hunt in pursuit of the Holy Grail.

A scarred warrior in the twilight of a largely undistinguished career but for the starring act in the Wimbledon sub-plot, the 31-year old from Oxford forever inhabits the porous borderline between glorious dreams and forlorn hopes.

On Tuesday, in the 120th championships, playing as an unseeded competitor for the first time in many years, Henman once again put his fans through the emotional wringer before getting past Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-7(8), 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 in three hours and 14 minutes in the first round.

And who do you think awaits the hometown hero? A certain Roger Federer, the three-time champion who quickly took care of some unfinished business to race past Richard Gasquet of France 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Rather more significantly, the Swiss maestro left the great Bjorn Borg behind as he stretched his grass court-winning streak to 42 matches. But it must be noted that every one of Borg's 41 victories came in best-of-five-set matches at Wimbledon.

Surely, numbingly familiar scenes will once again be enacted on the centre-court during the second round match between Henman and Federer.

And, barring an upset of the magnitude not seen in these parts since Boris Becker was beaten by Peter Doohan in 1987, the next outbreak of the hardly-virulent Henmania virus will be reported a year from now.

For, most certainly, the long journey imbued with a tragic resonance will continue. Henman is not about to throw in the towel.

If King Lear's tragic flaw was his egotism, then Henman is a humble soul; his flaw is not in his character as much as in his date of birth. It is one of those unhappy accidents of nature that saw the best part of his career run parallel to that of the greatest grass court player of all time Pete Sampras.

Four times Henman has reached the semifinals here, and on each of those occasions he was beaten by the man who went on to win the title Sampras in 1998 and 1999, Goran Ivanisevic in 2001 and Lleyton Hewitt in 2002.

The Englishman's best opportunity came in 2001 when he came within two points of making the final in a match against Ivanisevic that was played over three sodden days. And that was Henman's last realistic tilt at the title.

On the No.1 court on Tuesday, against a Swede 10 years younger, Henman set out on his usual roller coaster ride, losing the first set with a double fault on setpoint in the tiebreaker, cruising to a two-sets-to-one lead, then going walkabout in the fourth...typical Henman stuff.

The courts have certainly slowed down in recent years and Henman now chooses to play mostly from the back of the court. A pity, this. For, there is no better volleyer in the game today.

Then again, when the big question was asked, in the decider, Henman backed his instincts and it paid off as he attacked the net confidently to keep his appointment with the man who has not lost a grass court match in over a 1000 days.

Earlier in the day, Federer was majestic in closing out the match against Gasquet from 6-3 and 1-2. Monday and Tuesday put together, the gifted Swiss star spent just 72 minutes on court.

"To get any streak is obviously nice,'' said the champion. "I am surprised myself I kept it that long.''

Always humble, Federer admitted that Borg's streak was more impressive. "Look, Wimbledon is Wimbledon after all. The five Wimbledons and the sixth final is something beyond the possibilities of any player. So, for me, he stays a hero,'' said Federer.

Looking ahead to the match against Henman, the champion said, "It is as tough as it gets for a second round. Obviously it is not a nice draw. We're good friends. It is never nice to play against a friend.''

Federer, of course, will do well to remember that Sampras was Henman's good friend too.

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