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My tête-à-tête with Henri Leconte: On coaching, Monfils, and memories

Henri Leconte (R) with Tennis Grandstand writer James Crabtree

James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.

By James Crabtree

MELBOURNE — Most people when asked whom they would include on their perfect dinner party guest list name Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Julius Ceaser.

With all these predictable types, you need a sportsmen and an entertainer. In Henri Leconte, you have both.

When you walk into the room he is in command, captivating his audience with humorous anecdotes about Becker and Lendl that probably shouldn’t be mentioned.

As a player Henri’s exploits have been very much forgotten, perhaps in many ways overshadowed by his showman ways.

His Davis Cup exploits, when he beat Pete Sampras to help claim victory for France over the United States have been forgotten, including his 9 titles, French Open finals appearance in 1988 and his French Open doubles victory with Yannick Noah in 1984.

Henri was a paradox, a Frenchman who grew up on clay but had a serve and volley game to die for.

“I was sniper. To many opponents, I was very complicated. My best results were all on clay. It is difficult to understand today.”

Henri swirled his coffee and recalled his playing days.

“Beating (Pat) Cash at Wimbledon on grass was huge, I will always remember. Ivan hated to play against me so much I could tell, but I hated to play Fabrice Santoro. I really hated to play against Mats (Wilander). Boris Becker on grass was so difficult,” Henri said with a grin that turned into a laugh, which in turn replaced defeat with victory, “but Boris Becker on clay.”

The former world number 5, now a commentator for the Australian Open on channel 7 and throughout the year on Eurosport admires what Ivan Lendl has done for Andy Murray. As a coach he believes he could serve a player in the same capacity.

“I really think I could help. I had so many stupid experiences with the coaching and doing the wrong thing sometimes that I would know the right things. The matter is finding the right person who has the talent, and the passion as same as me. I could be so accurate for them because I have been there.”

Henri is your typical Frenchman, with a partisan approach to his countrymen that is endearing to say the least. When listening to a broadcast his usual catchphrase to any Jo-Wilfred Tsonga winner is an emphatic “Unbelievable.” Henri talks words of praise about Roger Rasheed, Tsonga’s new coach then speaks devotedly of Gael Monfils:

“I love this guy, he has more talent than he knows what to do with. He can be top ten so easy. He is such a great guy, we have not seen the best of him yet but time goes so fast.”

Henri reflects sincerely before saying with a hint of worry:

“We have so many players in France right now which is so good, but I worry a little bit about four five years from now. There are lots of politics.”

Henri Leconte is a pleasurable person to be around. He is personable, charming and humorous and speaks of his success with sheer modesty. Tennis is very much a part of his life, both personal and professional which is very much evident in his match commentary. With his vibrancy and excitement he really brings an added spark to the game of tennis, and a one on one chat with this man is an absolute treat.

Rafael Nadal starts clay – grass adaptation

AEGON Championship - Day Two

The World No.1 Rafael Nadal arrived in London in his own unique, but now customary way – as the French Open champion, via the Eurostar from Paris, and just in time to practise on the best grass courts in the world at the AEGON Championships.

At 7pm, he walked into The Queen’s Club with a big smile on his face. In the locker-room, player after player congratulated him on his success at Roland Garros. And then it was time to take to the grass for the first time in 2011.

As he fizzed forehands and backhands over the net, it was difficult to believe that he had just come through a 3 hour, 40 minute final in Paris just a day earlier. The contrast in the way he hit the ball was significant. Groundstrokes that previously looped high over the net and bounced over the heads of his opponents were now being whipped from just above the turf and clearing the net by inches.

“All my career I have loved trying to adapt to this surface,” said Nadal, afterwards. “At the beginning it is tough. The first day is not easy and I did not play very well but I spent more than an hour and a half on the grass and that’s the most important thing. I love to be here in London at Queen’s, and I’m going to try my best.”

Elsewhere, to read about Andy Murray’s first major grass-court practice session, and defending champion Sam Querrey’s first round triumph, click here: http://www.lta.org.uk/fans-major-events/AEGON-British-Tennis-Series/AEGON-Championships/News/2011/Defending-champion-Sam-Querrey-safely-through-to-second-round/

The AEGON Championships will be broadcast live, every day from 6th-12th June, on BBC Television and Eurosport.

For results, draws and the order of play for Tuesday, please go to the official AEGON Championships website: http://www.aegonchampionships.com

Serbia and France name Davis Cup Squads, ATP Announce Longer off-season and Date Krumm sets Retirement date

Andy Murray

*Serbia and France have both announced their squads for the forthcoming Davis Cup final in Belgrade taking place 3-5 December. Bogdan Obradovic has unsurprisingly chosen Novak Djokovic, who is unbeaten in Davis Cup singles play in 2010, to lead the Serbian attack with Viktor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic vying for the second singles berth. Either player could also partner doubles expert Nenad Zimonjic in that field. French Captain Guy Forget has chosen Gael Monfils as France’s spearhead with usual number one Jo-Wilfried Tsonga injured. Monfils has a 100% record this year and has recorded wins over the likes of ATP WTF finalist David Ferrer and David Nalbandian. Michael Llodra is expected to take the second singles berth after showing great form in the previous two rounds. It will be his first Davis Cup Final appearance after missing out in 2001 and 2002. Gilles Simon will also be hoping for some game time. The draw for play will take place on December 2.

*Two of the sport’s most prominent voices in the debate for extending the tennis off-season have spoken about the decision by the ATP to increase the resting period to seven weeks. “With seven weeks you can take a break at the end of the year and that should help the longevity of everyone’s careers,” said British No. 1 Andy Murray in his column for BBC Tennis. “We’ve been trying for quite a few years to make it clear that it’s too short an off-season. I’m hoping this will make a difference.” World No. 2 Roger Federer was more cautious with his response. “I think it’s good to have a longer off-season,” said the Swiss No. 1. “I definitely think it’s a step in the right direction. But only time will tell. Will we have less or more injuries because the calendar is more packed? I don’t know.” A full interview with Federer on the subject can be viewed at the Eurosport website.

*Kimiko Date Krumm has announced that the 2011 season will be her last. The 40-year-old Japanese defier of Father Time says she is targeting the Grand Slams during her swansong. The former Top 10 player returned to the Tour this year after a twelve year absence and finished the year ranked at No. 46. “I’m not a robot, I’m only human,” she told Sky Sports after losing in the semi-finals of the Asian Games in Guangzhou. “It’s been a good season but I’m exhausted now. I’m not sure whether or not I can manage to play until the end of next season. I need to recharge before I can think of competing next year. Hopefully I can have some good results at the Grand Slams.

*Roger Federer’s 6-1, 6-4 victory over David Ferrer at the o2 on Sunday was the thirtieth victory of his career at the ATP World Tour Finals. He has qualified for the season-ending Championships for nine straight years. “I think it’s wonderful,” said Federer, speaking of the event. “The players love it. We’re all here. It’s really prestigious. That’s what it’s supposed to be and has been for 40 years. I’ve been a part of them nine times already. Having the World Tour Finals here in London makes great sense because it’s in a great time zone, in a country that loves sports, especially tennis. I think it’s great for the fans to see that. All the sessions are basically sold out, there’s such a run on tickets. So it’s hard to choose a better place than London, I feel.”

*Day four of the ATP Finals saw temper tantrums on court in the match between Tomas Berdych and Andy Roddick. During the second set, with Roddick serving, the advertising banners on the front of the boxes where the line judges sit began flickering red before returning to their usual light blue. Roddick was broken for the second time and took his frustrations out on his racquet by beating his foot until the frame broke, earning him a reprimand, whilst also blasting a ball high in to the arena stands. “I was angry with myself and there wasn’t anybody else to talk to at that moment,” Roddick said. “The neons in the back weren’t quite to the settled position. They were still advertising fun stuff. When you’re trying to track a ball, it’s kind of neon lights and stuff. Then Tomas noticed it. A couple of them just went out before we played a point.”

*Former Aussie star Mark Philippoussis is reportedly having more financial difficulties despite playing recent events on the Champions circuit. He allegedly borrowed $1.2m to buy his Sydney home but has now been served with a mortgage default. He has also been talking of a return to the professional tour since 2009.

*Venus Williams has told Reuters she wants to play Fed Cup for the USA next season. She missed the recent final loss to Italy with a knee injury and claims that she was too upset to watch on. “It’s been tough to be out so I decided I couldn’t watch any more tennis,” said the elder Williams sister. “I desperately wanted to turn on the television and watch the Fed Cup but it was like: ‘At this point, maybe I should just let it go.’ It was frustrating. But I really want to play the tie next year, the U.S. against Belgium. I have to be healthy but I would love to be there.”

*Auckland’s ASB Classic is set to welcome a star-studded lineup during the first week of the 2011 WTA season. Three-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova heads the field with her debut appearance in New Zealand. She won her last major at the neighboring Australian Open in 2008. Two other Russians, former world No. 1 Dinara Safina and former No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova have also signed up to play. Kimiko Date Krumm, Yanina Wickmayer and Alona Bondarenko are also on the bill. The tournament will run January 3-8.

*Aussie legend John Newcombe has told prodigy Bernard Tomic to work more on the physical side of his game off the court and to get in to immediate contact with Pat Rafter and Tony Roche about how he can work towards being a part of their Davis Cup squads. “I’m not privy to enough inside knowledge, but what I hear is he doesn’t do enough of the physical training on the running side, off the court, to get his body into that sort of shape,” said the seven-time Grand Slam winner. “If he got himself into 100 percent physical shape, there’s no reason why he couldn’t be top 30, top 20. But we don’t know yet what he can do, because we haven’t seen it.” The full interview can be seen at Tennis.com.

*Serena Williams has pulled out of January’s Hopman Cup, the third time she has done so in her career. She has cited failure to recover from her foot injury as the reason and was recently photographed leaving an NFL game on crutches. Williams was due to play the event with John Isner.

*Doubles specialist Leander Paes says he will pursue an acting career when his playing days are over. The 37-year-old Indian star is looking forward to starting shooting on a film called ‘Rajdhani Express.’ “It’s something exciting. It’s something new,” he said. “I can’t keep playing tennis for the rest of my life. In India, I’m very lucky. I have a big following. I have a lot of people that enjoy what I do. Movies for me was a natural progression, to go from tennis to movies to entertain my fans. With the movies I’m just learning, I’m an apprentice. Right now I’m doing a serious drama movie, there’s not one song where I have to dance in it. Thank God.”

*Roger Federer’s coach Paul Anacone has said that the difference between the Swiss at 29 and Pete Sampras at the same age is vastly different. “I felt like I was with a 23-year-old or 22-year-old again [with Federer],” said Annacone, who has coached both stars. “He loves the life. He loves the tennis matches. He loves the travel. He has all the ingredients, including and most importantly good health in mind and body, to keep going for a number of years. I think in retrospect Pete at this age was a lot more tired—a lot more tired mostly emotionally, not physically. At the end of Pete’s career, he rejuvenated himself for that great push at the [2002] U.S. Open, but the last couple of years, for a multitude of reasons, were a bit emotionally draining for him. Roger is not anywhere near that state.”

*The world’s Top 2 men’s players, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, will face off in two exhibition matches this winter, in Zurich on December 21 and in Madrid on the following day. Proceeds from the best of three matches will go to their charities. “I always enjoy playing Rafa on the big stages and it is especially exciting when we can do it to help raise monies for our foundations,” said Federer in a statement to Reuters last Thursday.

*Rafa Nadal has won the ATP Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, ending Roger Federer’s six-straight winning streak. However, Federer picked up the Fan Favourite Award for the eighth year running. The Bryan brothers picked up the Fan Favourite Award for doubles for the sixth year in a row.

*The charity SOS Children recently hosted two round tables entitled “Breaking the poverty cycle: Strengthening communities and families” at the European Parliament on November 18 and 19. Kim Clijsters and her husband, Brian Lynch, spoke at the event and begged EU policy makers to strengthen families and end child poverty. “Children not growing up in a family face a heightened risk of emotional insecurity, educational failure, abuse and violence,” said three-time US Open winner Clijsters. “These are the harsh facts. Not only in third world countries, but also here in Europe. That’s why you’re here, at the very heart of the European Institutions, debating. That’s why we’re here, supporting your debate. It should be a basic right for every child to grow up in the warmth of a family.”

*Tennis Canada have named Rebecca Marino their female player of the year. The 19-year-old rose 80 slots in the rankings this year to No. 102.

*James Blake will hold his annual Reception to benefit the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Cancer Research Fund at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre on November 30th, at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. Guests will include Andy Roddick and his wife Brooklyn Decker, Anna Wintour, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Michael Jordan, Patrick McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Sugar Ray Leonard, as well as a surprise musical guest performance (Bob Larson’s Tennis News).

*The Art of Success charity auction has been a massive hit at the o2 Arena during the ATP World Tour Finals as self-portraits and signed racquets of the top stars have been raising huge sums of money on EBay. The portraits were painted by players hitting balls of paint at a stenciled canvas of their outline with one of their racquets. Robin Soderling’s was the first to close last Thursday and his self-portrait and racquet fetched $5,100. David Ferrer’s then closed on a value of $3,350. Andy Murray’s is the next to close on Nov. 25 and his lot stood at $6,600 at the time of going to press. Tomas Berdych (Nov. 27) is standing at $2,700. The final four close on Nov 28 as play in London draws to a close. Andy Roddick currently stands at $5,600 with Novak Djokovic at $4,150. But the worlds Top 2 players are making the biggest splash of all. Rafa Nadal’s work currently has 26 bids and stands at £26,000 and the greatest player of all time, Roger Federer, has his at $25,700. The proceeds will be split 50/50 with half of each sale going to Save the Children and the other half going to a charity of the player’s choice.

Ask Bill – Bill Mountford

There was speculation that some unseeded entrants in last week’s ATP event in Dubai received appearance fees in excess of US $1 million. Considering that eight of the world’s top ten played the tournament, the total purse (combining appearance fees and prize money) was likely greater than any of the ATP Masters Series events.

The worst example of why things are out of whack between Dubai and the rest of the tour occurred two years ago. In Andre Agassi’s final season, while he was looking to minimize travel, he opted to fly half-way around the world to Dubai in lieu of playing the Tennis Channel Open in his hometown of Las Vegas. Of course he was offered an appearance fee that even he could not refuse. By the way, in 2007 Agassi purchased tickets to attend matches at the Darling Tennis Center. That act showed a lot about Agassi’s character, or it was his penance. Regardless, there are not too many people “in” tennis who opt to pay for tickets when all-access credentials are readily available.

Congratulations to Sam Querrey, who won his first ATP title in Las Vegas. Too young to legally enjoy a celebratory beer, Querrey looks like a sure-fire future Davis Cupper. Forecasting future champions is always risky business, and Sam Querrey is a prime example. The first international junior tournament that he played was at the 2004 US Open (where he extended that year’s champion, Andy Murray, to three sets in the quarterfinals). The Californian was only able to enter this event as a wildcard, based on his winning the Boys’ 16 and under Nationals in Kalamazoo, MI (as a third-year 16s, by the way). He was hardly on the experts’ radar screen at that time, but rather just another good American junior who appeared primed for college tennis.

In Andy Murray’s second round match in Dubai, he let fly several clearly audible obscenities. I have a soft spot for Andy, because he is my son’s favorite player and I love his competitive spirit. But it appears that the point penalty system, which was put in place a few decades ago to essentially reign in John McEnroe, has been relaxed considerably. If these same rules existed back in 1990, then Johnny Mac would have won his eighth major at that year’s Australian Open instead of being unceremoniously defaulted.

The week following Andy Roddick’s victory in San Jose, Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated criticized the popular American for some unseemly, and certainly unsportsmanlike, behavior. There was a marked improvement in the way Roddick carried himself in Dubai. I suspect that a member of the Roddick team – and perhaps Andy himself – read this SI.com article. I feel Wertheim is comfortably growing into the position that the late, great Gene Scott once held: the conscience of tennis. There was nothing unfair about the opinions he shared. It was nice to see Andy enjoy his best victory in a few years, and behave honorably. In fact, commentator David Mercer referred to his semifinal win over Novak Djokovic to be “the highest quality in sport and sportsmanship.”

I watched 50,000 Balls, an interesting documentary about the lives of four top-ranking 12 and under American players from the summer of 2006. In Hoop Dreams fashion, it will be fascinating to see the sequel 500,000 Balls when these boys reach the 18s! Hopefully, a prominent Film Festival will show the project.

Serena Williams edged ahead of big sister Venus in their career head-to-head record (8-7) with a third set tiebreak win in the semifinals of Bangalore, India on her way to her 29th career title. This match could have been a preview of the 2008 Olympic Games gold medal match for women’s singles.

Congratulations to Wayne Bryan for being named the 2008 Professional Tennis Registry’s Professional of the Year. Wayne reminds me of the Grateful Dead. As was frequently said about this legendary band, Wayne is not only the best in the world at what he does, he is the only one in the world who does what he does. Every coach, and every parent for that matter, ought to have a copy of his book The Formula: Raising Your Child to be a Champion in Athletics, Arts, and Academics.

Joel Drucker wrote a nice piece on Wayne’s boys, Bob and Mike Bryan, who continue battling to make professional doubles relevant. The Brothers are relentlessly nice young men, and a credit to the tennis profession.

Monica Seles has announced her retirement, and she is a shoo-in for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. A player must be inactive on the main tour for five years to be eligible for induction. Well, Seles’s last professional match was played in 2003 during Roland Garros. While the class of 2008 has already been announced, her retirement announcement gives our sport the opportunity to do right by one of the greatest champions of all-time by fast-tracking her induction.

The buzz that the Federer-Sampras exhibition created was wonderful for our sport. “Cheap” tickets were scalped for over $1,000. George Vecsey of the New York Times wrote a wistful article previewing this match and Harvey Araton, also from the NY Times, wrote an interesting post-match commentary. In previous eras, these cross-generational challenge matches were common. Bill Tilden played Ellsworth Vines, Vines played Don Budge, Budge played Bobby Riggs, Riggs played Jack Kramer, Kramer played Pancho Gonzalez, Gonzalez played Rod Laver, Laver played Jimmy Connors, etc. Before tennis went “open” in 1968, the only (and the best) way champions had to earn money was through playing in exhibitions against previous champions.

Getting psyched up to play against Roger Federer in a sold out Madison Square Garden is more manageable for the 36-year-old Sampras then the prospect of grinding out Tour matches (or even of having to win seven matches in 13 days at Wimbledon). It is times like this when I really miss the New York sports talk radio stations!

Roger Federer’s less than gracious post-match comments about Andy Murray were likely taken out of context, but his follow up comments that Murray is more talented than Novak Djokovic seemed really out of character. Rafael Nadal disturbs Federer, and John Yandell wrote fascinating articles about this topic on www.TennisPlayer.net, but Djokovic apparently really gets under Federer’s skin. Last week, the Serb opined that he expected Murray to win and that Federer is essentially losing his aura of invincibility. Hmmm…

The announcement that Roger Federer was sick with mononucleosis must have surprised Pete Sampras, who holds Federer in the highest regard. Pistol Pete won his seventh Wimbledon title on a broken foot and his fifth US Open title with stomach ulcers. Sampras has always talked about how he admires the way Federer carries himself, and these champions obviously share unique experiences. Here’s hoping that they grab a beer together and discuss the time-honored Aussie code that both men respect: If you’re fit, then you take the court; if you take the court, then it means you’re fit.

There was a great trivia question a few years ago: Who was the last man to win a tour-level event while using a wood racquet? Hint: he was the only player to beat Mats Wilander in a major back in 1988. Well, here is a modern era trivia question: Who was the last man to win a tour-level title WITHOUT using polyester strings? Polyester strings have had as great an impact on the way tennis is played professionally as larger head-size, graphite racquets had 25 years ago.

I am looking forward to watching the Indian Wells coverage on EuroSport next week. Please feel welcome to send questions, comments, criticisms, requests, and jokes each week.

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