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English fans suffering from bout of Henmania

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WIMBLEDON, England — Virginia Wade knew exactly how Tim Henman felt, how every bad shot was made worse by the collective despair and expectations of 14,000 oohs and aahs on Centre Court.

"The thing about the British crowd is it's hysterical," said Wade, the last British player to capture the Wimbledon title, in 1977. "When they get hysterical, that adds to the tension. They're so nervous and volatile they can get the best of you.

"You can't be insecure," Wade said Saturday. "If your confidence is down, that wave can dump you. You want to say to them, 'Just calm down. I know what I'm doing. Relax.' "

Nobody was relaxed at Wimbledon or in the entire United Kingdom, when Henman finally walked upon the rain-slickened grass and quickly threw away several chances to put his semifinal match away against Goran Ivanisevic. Henman was leading, two sets to one, as the suspended match was resumed, then lost his advantage in the twilight mist.

When play was suspended again 51 minutes later and prolonged into a third day — becoming more cricket test than tennis match — Ivanisevic was right back in there, on serve, at 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 0-6, 7-6 (7-5), 3-2. Henman led the sixth game, 30-15, while somewhere Pat Rafter waited for the winner. Rafter will have to wait until tomorrow, as the men's final was postponed a day.

The contest might have ended much sooner, if Henman had been permitted to close it out on Friday night when his opponent was unraveling hysterically, as Wade might have said. Instead, Ivanisevic came storming back.

He knocked a winning passing shot from one knee, after slipping to the turf, then saved break point in the fourth set at 3-4, 30-40 with a forehand volley. Ivanisevic eventually won the tiebreaker on an ace that appeared too long on a replay, and on a forehand return that handcuffed Henman low on his forehand side.

All along, Henman appeared anxious about his tennis and a bit out of rhythm. The two players looked to the skies, and to tournament referee Alan Mills, as the drizzle became light rain. Ultimately, the court was declared "too greasy" and the match was suspended for yet another bad night's sleep.

Wade felt for Henman, while others might have felt for Wade. In recent weeks, most of the local papers have forgotten her great 1977 victory, near the end of her career, and instead focused on the last Wimbledon victory by a man, Fred Perry, in 1936.

A commentator on BBC on Saturday said it again: "It has been 65 years since Britain won the singles championship here."

"I've had a lot of American friends say to me, 'It's incorrect. Will you please tell them?' " Wade said about quoting politically correct, gender-sensitive acquaintances.

"It hasn't been anything I've worried about," Wade said. "But a fact is a fact. And I'm so proud to have won Wimbledon."

Wade's personal history was very different than that of Henman, who grew up in and around the All-England Club. Wade was raised in South Africa, where she became fascinated by the sport, and didn't see the Wimbledon grounds until her family moved back to London when she was 15.

Wade was immediately smitten by Centre Court.

"You walk into the court, in the middle of winter when there are no lines or anything and it's snowy, you can feel it," Wade said. "It speaks to you. There are a lot of spirits dwelling there."

She didn't really take up tennis seriously until she was in her 20s, and had many disappointments before finally capturing the title just days before turning 32, as Queen Elizabeth looked on from the royal box in a rare appearance.

"Every time I came to Wimbledon, I was the Great White Hope," Wade said. "Then they dump on you when you lose. 'Our Ginny' became 'Ginny Fizz.' "

Wade predicted that Henman would be fine - win or lose.

"Tim is very laid back, he manages to stay out of it," she said. "He's got a good sense of self. I was very much opposite. I was wild. I had to calm myself down.

"Winning is a moment of closure, really. The whole country would use it as an excuse to celebrate. I don't know if it's a relief, or if the press will calm down and we can get on with business as usual.

"If he loses, half will write him off, the other half will say it's OK."

Everybody thought they'd know by now whether Henman was the first British man in the final since 1938. Instead, they must wait a third day, a cruel and unusual stretch of time.

England, stricken with Henmania, suffers along with its serve-and-volley hero.