Tim Henman: A lifetime at Wimbledon

Tim Henman has spent years of his life at Wimbledon, as a fan, player, broadcaster and more. He spoke to Toby Keel. Photographs by Simon Stacpoole / Antoine Couvercelle / Jed Jacobsohn / Jon Buckle / Chris Trotman via Rolex and Getty Images.

Even when it’s empty, Centre Court at Wimbledon is one of sport’s most evocative arenas. Is it the ghosts of a century’s worth of players who have graced this turf since it was first laid in 1922? Is it the octagonal shape and instantly recognisable configuration — here, the Royal Box; there, the families’-and-coaches’ viewing platform — which makes this 15,000-seater venue retain its charming, even intimate feel?

Or is it the hold-your-breath calm that somehow feels like part and parcel of the place, a knowing, sophisticated quiet that you can feel both on a quiet weekday outside of tournament fortnight, or in those pin-drop moments before you witness a serve at match point in a five-set thriller? The Spanish players have, for years, referred to Centre Court at ‘La Cátedra’ — The Cathedral. It’s an apt descriptor: cool, calm and almost ethereal, this is sporting hallowed ground.

Nowhere like it: Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon.

It’s into this space that Tim Henman strolls, all smiles and easy bonhomie, looking for all the world as if he owns the place. And in some senses he almost does: the former British number one, a four-time semi-finalist at The Championships, first came here as a six-year-old, accompanying his mother — a member of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club — to watch Björn Borg play. That visit in 1981 sparked a love of the game that has defined his life, and since then he has spent literally years of his life here, as a fan, player, broadcaster, administrator (he has a seat on the club board and is on the tournament management committee) and a brand ambassador.

It’s in the latter capacity — as a Rolex Testimonee — that he’s spending the day showing us around the club shortly before the tournament kicks off in earnest. And everywhere you look, there’s a sense that in those 43 years since his first visit, Wimbledon has both moved with the times and kept the important things just the same. Centre Court, for example, might have a retractable roof these days, but retains its tasteful British Racing Green colour scheme, and it’s almost entirely unencumbered by the usual sea of logos you see at most sporting events. The sole exceptions are the ‘Rolex’ you’ll see on the scoreboard (they’ve been official timekeepers at Wimbledon since 1978) and a couple of discreet ball sponsor logos (Slazenger have provided them since 1902). It’s classy, perfectly understated, timeless; the nearest thing elite sport has to a royal garden party.

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Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981.

Does Henman still miss being out here as a player? ‘I miss the 1% that is competing,’ he says. ‘I don’t miss the other 99%: the training, the travel, the trying to keep healthy.’ So little does he miss playing tennis that he hasn’t swung a racket since a 25-hour, two-day marathon match for charity at the tail end of a 2023. These days, the balls he hits aren’t yellow and soft, but small, white and dimpled: ‘Most of the time when I’m out on court I tend to be thinking to myself “I could be out on the golf course!”’ His standard of play suggests he might even have made a living in golf if tennis hadn’t worked out: a few months shy of his 50th birthday, he plays at Sunningdale to a handicap of +1.

One thing Henman absolutely doesn’t miss is his dealings with the press from his playing days. The peak of his career in the late 1990s and early 2000s coincided with the last few years of print media still being king, and on one of his first visits he ended up falling foul of Fleet Street in spectacular fashion. While on the cusp of winning a doubles match in 1995 he carelessly hit a ball away after a point without looking, and the ball accidentally hit one of the ball girls in the head.

Henman and his playing partner were instantly disqualified, the first players at Wimbledon to suffer that fate in a century, and the back pages were savage. ‘He hit it so hard he could have killed her’ was one headline, a quote from one of Henman’s opponents that day, despite the ball girl being fine. The reaction shocked him, and though he laughs about it now you can still sense the scar tissue as he recounts the story. It did spur him on (he ‘didn’t want to be remembered just for getting disqualified’) but it prompted a caution with the press that meant he would spend years of his playing career ‘giving the right answer instead of the honest answer’ to avoid stirring things up.

Those sorts of worries seem worlds away when you walk through the club on a sunny morning at SW19. You weave in and out between the 18 courts one moment, find yourself beneath the balcony where the champions greet fans at another; over here you spot the new practice centre, with some of the 300 Range Rover courtesy cars parked outside; and over there you’ll see the high perch where Clare Balding and the BBC set up their studio for the duration of the fortnight.

It’s a relatively small site, but is likely to become bigger in the coming years: a plan is in place to extend into the grounds of now-closed Wimbledon Park Golf Club across the road. In news that will surprise nobody who has tried to extend their property in one of London’s priciest suburbs, it’s currently held up in planning with one of the two councils on whose ground the land sits.

SW19 runs on tennis time for two weeks every summer. ©Rolex/Antoine Couvercelle

These are the sorts of things which occupy Henman’s mind these days, along with TV commentary work, family life (he has three daughters, in their late teens and early twenties) and the pub he recently bought with some friends in his home village in Oxfordshire. As our time with him comes to an end (which we discover as he checks his watch; a Rolex, of course, but it genuinely looks well worn for many years) there’s time to ask about The One That Got Away. It was back in 2001, and Henman had beaten a young Swiss player called Roger Federer to earn a place in the semi-finals against Goran Ivanisevic.

Roger Federer — like Tim Henman, a Rolex Testimonee — lost to the British star in 2001, but went on to win the title a record eight times.

Henman had the unseeded Croatian on the ropes and a place in the final was there for the taking — until rain intervened, forcing a halt in play. When they eventually returned, the momentum shifted as Ivanisevic had rediscovered the rhythm in his fearsome serve, going on to win both match and tournament.

Does Henman wonder what might have been if the retractable roof had been built 10 years earlier? ‘Would I have beaten him? Probably, yes,’ he says. ‘But I could name half a dozen matches right now where I was heading out and got saved by the rain.’ No regrets, no recrimination, just a man who found his niche in life, and is still enjoying it four decades later.

The Championships, Wimbledon, run until July 14, 2024 — wimbledon.com

Tim Henman’s favourite things

As told to Hetty Lintell, and illustrated by Ollie Maxwell for Country Life

Rolex Milgauss

I received my Rolex Milgauss watch when I became a Rolex Testimonee and a part of the Rolex family. It reminds me of my first visit to Wimbledon, when my Mum took me as a six year old. I still have the ticket. I can remember where we sat and what I was wearing when I saw Centre Court for the first time, the immaculate green grass, and also Bjorn Borg. My Mum explained to me the history and tradition of Wimbledon. Rolex is very much a part of that, so, when I look at my watch, I think of that day in 1981.


My wife, Lucy, and I have three daughters, Rosie, 21, Liv, 19, and Gracie, 16. They very much have their own social diaries, so it’s not always easy to get the family together. Therefore, I like to plan ahead and make sure holiday dates are in the diary well in advance. My favourite place to go on holiday is to Mustique. We have been going there for the past 10 years and have had so much fun. I can’t wait to return to spend time together en famille, which is always so special.

Olivier at the Chequers

I don’t know when I first had a taste of wine, but I think I was quite young! There is nothing I enjoy more than being with family and friends sharing good food and good wine. About three years ago, a small group of us bought the pub in Aston Tirrold, our village in south Oxfordshire. After planning applications and 10 months of renovations, Olivier at the Chequers is up and running and is being very well supported by the local community. If I’m not at home, you will know where to find me!