The Ballboy of Lyon

Rafa’s Marked Man: Henri Cochet

Rafael Nadal has a fourth straight Roland Garros title within his sight, which would place him in a tie for second for most French men’s singles titles with France’s Henri Cochet. The French Musketeer won at Roland Garros in 1926, 1928, 1930 and 1932 and is considered by some as the greatest French player of all-time. Nadal stands tied with Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Rene Lacoste and Gustavo Kuerten with three men’s singles titles. (Bjorn Borg, with six titles won, stands as the top dog in men’s singles in Paris.) Bud Collins, in his upcoming book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS (order here for special 39 percent off discount), profiles Cochet – Nadal’s marked man.

It could be said that Henri Jean Cochet had as pronounced a gift for playing tennis as anyone who attained world supremacy. A racket in his hand became a wand of magic, doing the impossible, most often in a position on the court considered untenable, and doing it with non-chalant ease and fluency. He took the ball early, volleys and half-volleys rippling off the strings. His overheads invariably scored, though his serve seemingly was innocuous.

He developed his skills early in Lyon, France, where he was born Dec. 14, 1901, and his father was secretary of the tennis club. Henri worked at the club as a ball boy and practiced with his friends and sister when nobody was using the courts. In 1921, he went to Paris where he and Jean Borotra, both unknowns, reached the final of the indoor championship, Cochet the winner.

The next year, he and Borotra played on the Davis Cup team, and in 1923 they joined with Rene Lacoste and Jacques Brugnon in the origin of the Four Musketeers. Cochet won 10 successive Davis Cup challenge round matches from the time the Musketeers wrested the Cup from the U.S. in 1927.

A sensitivity of touch and timing, resulting in moderately hit strokes of genius, accounted for the success the little Frenchman (5-foot-6, 145 pounds) had in turning back the forceful hitters of the 1920s and early 30s. Following a stunning victory over Bill Tilden, 6-8, 6-1, 6-3, 1-6, 8-6, in the quarterfinals of the 1926 U.S. Championships, ending Tilden’s six-year, 42-match streak, and a Cup-snatching triumph over Bill Johnston in the 1927 challenge round, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, the right-handed Cochet established himself in 1928 as the world’s foremost player. Winner of the U.S., over Frank Hunter, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, and French, over Lacoste, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, that year, and runner-up at Wimbledon to Lacoste, he became more of a national hero than ever as he scored three victories in the Cup defense, 4-1 over the U.S.

With Lacoste’s retirement from international play in 1929, Cochet was France’s indispensable man. He led his country to Cup-holding victories over the United States in the challenge round in 1929, 1930 and 1932, and the British in 1931.

The “Ballboy of Lyon,” as he was called, was champion of France four times after it was opened to non-French citizens in 1925), and won two Wimbledons (1927, 1929) and one U.S. (1928). Probably justifiably, he felt unfairly treated in trying for a second U.S. in 1932. Darkness shut down his semifinal win over Wilmer Allison at 2-2 in sets. He had to complete that victory, 7-5, the following day, and then, after two hours rest, face the final in which the weary Frenchman was no match for a fresh Ellsworth Vines, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

In his last three matches in winning the Wimbledon title in 1927, he was a singular Henri Houdini. No one has concluded a major in such spectacular escapes, and all at the expense of three future Hall of Famers. Down two sets, the No. 4-seeded Cochet beat Frank Hunter in the quarters, 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. Trailing the great No. 2 seed Tilden, three points from defeat at 1-5, 15-all in the third, he reeled off 17 straight points, also survived a service break to 3-2 in the fifth and won the last four games to seize their semi, 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. For an encore magnifique in the final, he lagged again and had to repel six match points to beat No. 3 seed Borotra, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5: Hurdling a match point at 2-5, and five more with Borotra serving at 5-3!

He ranked No. 1 from 1928 through 1931. After France lost the Davis Cup to Great Britain in 1933, Cochet turned professional. He did not have much of a career as a pro, however, and after the war, in 1945, one of the most naturally gifted tennis players in history received reinstatement as an amateur, a role in which he had once ruled the tennis world. He continued playing well. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976, he died April 1, 1987, in St. Germain-en-Laye, France.

MAJOR TITLES (15) — French singles, 1926 1928, 1930, 1932: Wimbledon singles, 1927 1929; U.S. singles, 1928; French doubles, 1927, 1930, 1932; Wimbledon doubles, 1926, 1928; French mixed, 1928, 1929: U.S. mixed, 1927. DAVIS CUP — 1922, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930. 1931, 1932, 1933, 34-8 singles, 10-6 doubles. SINGLES RECORD IN THE MAJORS –French (38-4), Wimbledon (43-8), US (15-3).