WIMBLEDON, England — The sun always sets on the British Empire. Usually by the middle of Wimbledon’s second week. Once again, Tim Henman has advanced into the tournament’s latter stages; once again, the Great English Hope likely will falter in his quest to become Britain’s first male champion in 68 years.
And his loyal subjects wouldn’t have it any other way.
The English are a funny lot: They fancy meat pies over Cracker Jack, cricket over baseball. They watch “Big Brother” — a show that trains a camera on a house full of drunken layabouts — with the same fervor we reserve for high-concept fare like “American Idol.”
Yet in one respect, our colonial forefathers are just like us. Some of us, anyway.
To put it plainly, England is a nation of Boston Red Sox fans. An isle of sports flagellantes. Fifty million Charlie Browns, forever flailing at an unbootable pigskin.
And no, we’re not referring to David Beckham’s apparent field goal attempt in England’s Euro 2004 soccer shootout loss to Portugal.
Make no mistake: the Brits couldn’t give two pence about Fenway Park’s perennial also-rans. They have their own peculiar athletic perversions. Not to mention rugby. But their sick, twisted fan pathology — a soul-sucking cycle of hope and despair, jubilation and disgust, wrapped in an oversized Union Jack — is remarkably similar to Red Sox Nation’s intractable manic depression, like some long-forgotten, long-since-rotten tea bags that should have been chucked into Boston Harbor.
All of which brings us back to Henman.
So long as Tiger Tim remains in the Wimbledon draw, his pre-eminence in the English sports firmament cannot be understated. Not that Fleet Street bothers to try. Our Tim. Henmania. Year after year, the tabloid headlines hardly change, as if ripped from the film “Groundhog Day.” All Britannia is obsessed with Henman. Obsessed with the idea of Henman. Overtly enthralled by his puncher’s chance at a championship. And secretly enraptured by his inevitable defeats.
Indeed, the worst thing Henman could do is win the whole thing, big and easy, running roughshod across the grass in the manner of Pete Sampras or Boris Becker. To the contrary, it’s Henman’s struggles that fascinate this land of incessant summer showers — the foreboding forehand into the net, the creeping sense of tiebreak doom, the melancholy knowledge that merely good will never be quite good enough.
Once, long ago, England dominated not merely the globe but the whole wide world of sports. Wimbledon was no exception. The British own 35 men’s singles titles, tops among all nations. But the last came in 1936; Fred Perry has long since left the SW 19. Henman plays in the long shadow of empire, the remembrance of glory past. His tournament runs inspire historical longing, a desire to restore the once-natural order. His failures trigger something else entirely.
Near misses and nearly men. Pick up the English sports pages: They eschew analysis for psychoanalysis. Commentators endlessly pontificate on the need for bravado and derring-do. The country’s heartbreaking international soccer losses — and it’s a long, sad chronicle of shoulda-woulda-couldas — are blamed on a crisis of confidence, never mind a lack of talent. Likewise, Henman’s hangups are considered a matter of nerve. This, of course, is a self-defeating, self-perpetuating mind-set, same as the one that permeates Fenway. Beneath the flags and face paint, English fans expect to lose, expect Aaron Boone to blast them out of the playoffs. A recent headline in a London newspaper said it all: “WE’RE A NATION OF LOSERS.”
Two days ago, Henman trailed Hicham Arazi in a third-round contest. A cashier in the Wimbledon cafeteria looked up from her register, spying the match on a nearby television set. “Looks as though Henman will lose,” she sighed. The match was midway through the first set.
The result? A vortex of quiet desperation and a crushing burden for Henman to bear. To his credit, Henman has responded this fortnight with a relaxed, even flippant air. He has a new coach, Paul Annacone, the calm, even-keeled anchor of Sampras’ later years. Most important, Henman is managing to win ugly — often coming from behind — which is the only way he will win it all. Enough to slay the likes of Andy Roddick and Roger Federer? Doubtful. Grit only goes so far. Good thing, too. The denizens of Henman Hill simply don’t believe their man can do it. When the shouting’s done, they console themselves with being right.
Above the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s grass arena hangs an inscription from the poet Rudyard Kipling, the old chestnut about the twin impostors of triumph and disaster. It’s a nifty sentiment, to be sure, if complete and utter rubbish: Anyone on the wrong side of an old-fashioned spanking knows one of these things is not like the other. And so, when Henman inevitably bows out of Wimbledon, the scene will be all too familiar, instantly recognizable to everyone who ever has donned a Red Sox cap. Fear and self-loathing on Centre Court.