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Past Masters still court glory on Champions Tour

Tim Henman is the latest tennis great to return to the court through the ATP Champions Tour.
Tim Henman is the latest tennis great to return to the court through the ATP Champions Tour.
  • Tim Henman joins the growing list of players on the ATP Champions Tour
  • The former British No.1 is the latest tennis great to feature in the series
  • Sweden's Thomas Enqvist has won four straight tournaments on the tour

(CNN) -- "Tiger Tim" is on the prowl again and ready to face up to the likes of Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic but this time with just pride and title glory on the line.

Former British number one Tim Henman is just the latest in an illustrious band of former tennis greats who cannot resist of lure of competition and have joined up to the ATP Champions Tour.

The four-time Wimbledon semifinalist, was the standard bearer for British tennis for much of his professional career, until retiring in 2008 at the age of 33.

After years of touring, Henman said he wanted a "complete break" from a game he grew out of love with towards the end of his professional career.

But now he is back in training and aims to make his comeback in the showpiece event of the Champions Tour at the Royal Albert Hall in November.

"I always felt that if I started to play tennis again it would be in London first," he told CNN.

"The event has been going for 14 years, the Royal Albert Hall is such a special place to play and I've seen the event grow in stature and the competition get better and better."

Like a lot of former tennis stars, Henman wants to be competitive but likes the fact it will be not a matter of life and death as it often appeared to be in his regular playing career where grand slams and ranking points were at stake.

"First and foremost I want to play well because tennis has always been a huge passion of mine and to play well in London in front of a British crowd is another incentive.

"But at the end of the day, these tournaments are to be enjoyed, and if you don't come away with the right result then it's not the end of the world.

"To know that I'll be able to play with less pressure will make it extra enjoyable," he added.

Seniors tennis was the brainchild of former grand slam legend Jimmy Connors, but it was his longtime bitter rival John McEnroe who did so much to popularize the current circuit and make it a serious competition.

These tournaments are to be enjoyed, if you don't [get] the right result it's not the end of the world.
--Tim Henman

When a masters event at the Royal Albert Hall was launched in 1997, his rematch with Bjorn Borg, 17 years after their Wimbledon semifinal epic, attracted huge interest, and a live television audience.

McEnroe won the match and the tournament and has pretty much been a regular on the now Champions or Legends Tour since.

At the age of 51 he still is still highly competitive and, as the 2010 season swung into action, topped the rankings ahead of players much younger and more recently retired.

Players pick up ranking points for appearances as well as winning, but it is still a remarkable achievement for the former "super brat" of tennis, who is now a respected elder statesman, with his rants a well-packaged part of his act.

David Law, who heads up the media operation for the Champions Tour, said that the competitive edge which McEnroe brought to events had been crucial in establishing the circuit.

"In the early days it was much more hit and giggle," he told CNN.

"Guys were out of shape and with big pot bellies and they just didn't look like athletes and it quickly wore thin.

"Then Mac came along and he thought 'I am going to beat you' and when he started beating them again and again they all started getting fit."

The ATP Champions Tour roster now reads like a who's who of tennis with former grand slam all-time record holder Pete Sampras a recent addition, plus the likes of Goran Ivanisevic, Stefan Edberg, Richard Krajicek and Open Court's own Pat Cash.

It has meant that a tour which relied heavily for year after year on McEnroe's pulling power and charisma is drawing every stronger entry lists of players who miss the thrill of competition, with Henman just the latest to get the bug again.

"After two years or so away from the game, virtually all of them think 'I quite like tennis' and do miss it," believes Law. "The Champions Tour gives them a chance to play but not stress themselves out."

Unlike its counterpart in golf, the tour does not offer prize money, with players instead receiving appearance money.

Again Law believes that the absence of big prize purses means the games are played in the right spirit.

"We did introduce a winner take all prize a couple of years back and it became more serious to the point where we were getting big servers sending down aces at 130 mph on a fast indoor court and we were getting no rallies."

The experiment was quickly dropped, but despite the absence of cash rewards, Law expects their circuit to expand beyond the current 10 tournaments to at least 12 in 2011.

There is also a sister circuit in the United States, run by former grand slam winner Jim Courier, which attracts the veteran greats in their droves.

The current hot shot on the tour is Swedish star Thomas Enqvist, who claimed his fourth straight tournament win in Bogota, Colombia at the end of March.

His attitude is typical of the mentality of a recently-retired player.

"I don't think about the run I'm on too much to be honest, I just try to have fun and enjoy every tournament and play the best tennis I can. Winning is fun too though," he told the official Tour Web site.

Expect Enqvist to come under challenge during the season which culminates in London and Henman, who is back in serious training would love to cap his comeback with a title win in his home city, something he never managed during his ATP Tour career, despite near misses at Wimbledon and Queens Club.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing how my game holds up and hopefully it will be the first event of many for me on the ATP Champions Tour," he said.