Meet The Court Cutup

With his antic joie de vivre, France's Henri Leconte is as fun to play as he is to watch
May 31, 1987

The discreet Charm of Henri Leconte is on full display this perfect Riviera afternoon as he boings around the veranda of his villa on a pogo stick. He's wearing a T-shirt that says JE SENS QUE JE VAIS CRAQUER! ("I feel like I'm about to crack!"), alternately hunching like Rufus T. Firefly and rearing back like the Lone Ranger riding Silver off into the sunset.

The villa around which Leconte pogos is in Mougins, a once rustic, now fashionable hill suburb of Cannes. Leconte's wife, Brigitte, is redecorating the interior entirely in blue and white. ("After it's finished," she says with a laugh, "people who visit must be blue and white.") Surrounded by sprays of blue marguerites, white calla lilies and blue and white amaryllis, Leconte enjoys all the privileges of his rank, which in tennis is first in France and ninth in the world.

He dismounts the pogo stick and settles into a chair at the backyard picnic table. Sipping Mumm champagne from a Smurf glass, the roly-poly, slightly jowly Leconte stabs at a slice of barbecued c‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•te de boeufburied beneath a glob of bèarnaise sauce. His infant son, Maxim, and collie pup, Lassie, nip at his ankles while his jogging partner, a German shepherd named Hirck, paws at his elbow. "Edolie!" Leconte bellows to his stepdaughter. "Where is my fan letter?"

Edolie, who's eight, is more bemused than cowed. Leconte's bellow is mostly wind, with little bark. She strolls over to a life-sized statue of a black minstrel that resembles a smiling and beseeching Al Jolson. It's a kitschy piece of Americana, the kind of thing you see in the homes of those who have more money than they know what to do with. Edolie produces the letter from a shelf beside the minstrel. Leconte translates from the French:

"Sir: I am a longtime observer of tennis in this country. I have often watched you and Yannick Noah play against players like John McEnroe and Boris Becker. In my opinion, Yannick is a superb athlete and you are a cheap imitation...."

Leconte laughs weakly.

"Yannick is a great entertainer. You are a jerk and an idiot, a fat clown without [courage]. Yannick is still the best and you are jealous of his success."

The letter is signed "A Fan of Noah."

Leconte shrugs and says, "People want us to be rivals all the time. But we're totally different personalities. The only thing we have in common is a French passport." Noah, who lived in Cameroon as a child, is No. 6 on the world charts, yet for some reason French computers rank Leconte No. 1 in France. The two players were once very close. Noah, 27, led Leconte, 23, through the rigidly structured French Tennis Federation like a big brother. They won the French Open doubles title in 1984. But Leconte got married later that year, and their friendship waned. Some believe Brigitte encouraged this distance between them. Leconte had never beaten Noah, and people said he was in awe of his big brother. He beat Noah for the first time six months after the wedding.

Brigitte and Henri met three years ago when she was doing public-relations work for Jacques Chirac, then the mayor of Paris. She is 12 years older than her husband and, according to French gossip, she pretty much runs his affairs off the court. "When your wife is that much older than you, it's obvious who's boss," says Noah. "She doesn't coach tennis, but she coaches everything else in his life."

Noah became a national hero in 1983 by winning the French Open. It was the first time a Frenchman had won the Grand Slam event in 37 years, but his seven-year run as the country's top-ranked player ended in 1986, when Leconte dethroned him.

Leconte's game is considerably different from Noah's wide-ranging, athletic style. "When he's playing well, Leconte expends less energy than any other player," says Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, who used to work with Leconte. A great shotmaker, Leconte has the fastest hands and the strongest arm in tennis. "Henri makes shots that don't exist," says Becker. "He can be so amazing, you feel like a ball boy."

Being lefthanded is another advantage, and Leconte is one of the diminishing number of players who adapt well to all surfaces. Though his game is not particularly suited to clay, his 27-4 record on it last year was third-best on the circuit (behind only Ivan Lendl's and Noah's), and he reached the semifinals at the French Open. Later in the summer he made the semifinals at Wimbledon, which, of course, is played on grass, and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, a hard-court event.

But Leconte lacks concentration and self-discipline. He tends to go for winners on every ball, whether he's on the baseline or at the net. The result is either a spectacular shot or one that sails into the fence, the gallery or the next court. He's like a kid with a wild fastball who either blows the pitch by a batter or can't find the plate. "With 90 percent of the players on the tour," says Noah, "you know exactly what they're going to hit and where they'll be. Henri is so unpredictable that the only thing to do is wait for his mistakes."

Leconte is also a court jester who heads loose balls to ball boys soccer-style, redirects disoriented butterflies and mugs for TV cameras, but doesn't bother to stay in shape. "Henri is in the worst physical condition of anyone in the Top 10," says Noah, "and mentally he's not strong enough." Says Becker "He trains for a month like crazy and then goes on holiday for three weeks.' Lately Leconte has been working hard to play himself back into shape following a back injury that sidelined him for two months. He still wasn't 100% when the French Open began on Monday.

According to one French sportswriter, "The French people are still waiting for Leconte to achieve something. He has all the abilities, but to be great you need to have a very solid mental [attitude]." Leconte doesn't seem particularly concerned about others' doubts and criticisms. "If Henri had to quit tomorrow," says another French sportswriter "he would be perfectly content with the little niche he has made for himself."

Leconte acts pretty BCBG (Bon Chic Bon Genre), which is comparable to being preppy. He grew up le petit dernier the baby in a family of four kids in the town of Lillers in northern France. Leconte père was an engineer with a metal works company. Mère taught tennis at a country club. Henri practiced by hitting a ball off the garage door. Occasionally a window would break. As punishment, his parents would tell him he couldn' play tennis on the weekend. "I'd play tennis on the weekend anyway," he says with a smirk.

He was an average student and something of a cutup who skipped school and once sprayed the desks in his class with a fire extinguisher. "My parents wanted me to be good in school, but I was only medium," says Leconte. "Some people don't work and don't care. But me, I didn't work and was scared. I always worried the teacher would ask me questions I hadn't studied the answers for."

Leconte qualified for the French Tennis Federation's junior development program when he was 12. He modeled himself after Ilie Nastase, whose spirit he admired. At 16, Leconte quit the federation and enlisted Nastase's countryman, Tiriac, as his manager. In 1981, he was left off the French Davis Cup team but was, by this time, attracting considerable attention. The following year, in his first three months on the French satellite circuit, Leconte won all five tournaments he entered—on four different surfaces. "The federation thought Henri was uncontrollable, crazy," says Tiriac, whose prize pupil in those days was Guillermo Vilas. "They didn't think he could adjust to patterns or systems. But Henri was like a colt who had never been mounted and had to be broken. As long as I could make him work and improve him physically, I could care less if he was crazy."

Tiriac had Leconte train with the indefatigable Vilas, once pitting them against each other eight hours a day for a week. "I wanted to be sure he could take it," says Tiriac. "I overworked him, but I never found a limit. The guy survived, and after that he was a machine." Nevertheless, Tiriac always called the stately, dignified Vilas "the president" and the untamable Leconte "the idiot."

The French press also tends to regard Leconte as a vrai na‚àö√òf, which means "true innocent." After beating Noah for the first time in the quarterfinals of the 1985 French Open, Leconte held a press conference at which he announced he was about to sign a major endorsement contract.

"Who's the sponsor?" a reporter asked.

"I can't say right now," said Leconte. "It's too early. You'll find out in a few days."

"How?"

"You can read about it in the newspapers," Leconte replied. Nobody thought he was being disingenuous.

Leconte is a tough interview. It's not that he resists. He just won't sit still. You have to practically ambush him while he's pinned down on the massage table, and even there his attention span is no longer than a three-shot rally.

Do you find it difficult to concentrate on the court, Henri?

"Yes, sometimes very," he answers. "In fact. . . ." Then he glances at a newspaper, picks at the adhesive tape on his thumb, calls out to a friend across the room, peeks at his watch and sings a little French ditty. A few minutes later he asks, "What was the question again?"

Coaches seem to bore him just as quickly. He discards them one after the other, much the way Louis XIV dumped mistresses. His current coach, Patrice Dominguez, is already on his second tour of duty. "If Becker needs a coach for 20 weeks a year," Tiriac says, "Leconte needs one for 30. He could beat anyone in the Top 3 tomorrow morning, but he's got to find a balance between his strokes and his brain."

Leconte claims he reached that equilibrium when he got married. "It made me more mature, more responsible," he says. "Now I play with more consistency, more aggressivity."

"I always wanted to be useful for my clients," says Brigitte, "and now my client is my husband. I think Henri wants to have serenity, and his family makes him serene." Leconte met Brigitte when she was promoting the French Open for Chirac. Reasoning that photographers would flock to a celebrity wedding, Brigitte decided to stage a fake one at Roland Garros, the site of the Open. She would play the bride.

"Why don't you marry a tennis player," someone suggested.

"O.K.," Brigitte said. "How about Henri Leconte?" She was interested in him, but, although the two had met a couple of times, they had never really had a chance to get to know each other.

"Fine," said Leconte, and they went ahead with the wedding as though it were the real thing, complete with a long French kiss at the conclusion of the ceremony. Leconte was so taken by the charade and his make-believe bride that seven months later they decided to hold an authentic ceremony. Leconte's parents went to the first wedding, but refrained from attending the second. They considered their son's decision to marry for real a little precipitate, and his choice of bride was not quite what they had envisioned. His relationship with them was strained for a while, but these days Leconte says he's back in their good graces.

Brigitte began repackaging her husband's image immediately. She insisted Henri tell his friends to stop calling him Riton, a nickname that means Baby Henri. "I'm not Riton," he said, "I'm Henri." Not everyone was convinced. "He's always been fairly outspoken, a little naive, very first-degree [spontaneous]," says Noah. "Now, suddenly, he wants to be Mr. Henri. For most of us, though, he's still Riton. I always think of him as a child."

Leconte's collection of T-shirts does little to persuade one to think otherwise. A few weeks ago he appeared at the Monte Carlo Country Club wearing one that read ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET. He was practicing with Becker, who would be playing in the Monte Carlo Open the next week. As they descended on center court, 34-year-old Vilas scurried off. He is a two-time champion at Monte Carlo.

Brigitte observed his departure from the stands. "A few years ago," she said, "the people who run this place would have rolled out the carpet to have Vilas. Now, if Boris or Henri wants center court, he must go elsewhere." Her tone had a certain elegiac quality. "At 30, a tennis player starts over," Brigitte continued. "No more fans, no more press, no more nothing. All he has left is his wife, his children and his friends, which he can count on one hand. I understand because I lived that thing."

Brigitte was married to Guy Drut, the French hurdler who won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. Drut's attempts to carry his celebrity into politics proved futile. "I think Henri will have a big head never," predicts Brigitte. "In France, we have a saying: You must have your foot on the trellis and not in the air."

Down at courtside, Leconte planted his feet on the red clay. He twirled his racket like a baton, aimed it like a tommy gun, leaned on it as though it were a cane. He dashed to the net, double-pumped to fake a smash and then dropped the ball neatly a foot over the net. He got a big laugh from the gallery.

"Only on the court is Henri free to be himself," says Noah. "He reacts the way he feels. It's much more fun to play him than have Lendl glower at you or McEnroe scream and give fingers all over the place. It's the way tennis is supposed to be."

The French, in their eternal quest for liberty, equality and fraternity, are evenly divided on Noah versus Leconte. Generally the intellectuals and the young prefer the cool, mildly counter-cultural Noah, while the settled and solid favor Leconte. No doubt the French bourgeoisie breathed easier when one of their own took over the top spot from an import. Noah seems unperturbed. "There's enough space in France for two Top 10 players," he says.

Actually, a passport isn't the only thing they still have in common. Both live mainly outside France. Noah has an apartment in Manhattan, where he likes the anonymity New York affords him. Leconte keeps a house near Geneva, where he likes the tax laws. When they're on the Cote d'Azur, both train at the same club in Sophia-Antibes near Mougins.

Recently they practiced on adjacent courts in preparation for this year's Italian and French Opens. Noah rattled from net to baseline, sideline to sideline. He leaped and stretched and sprawled. Leconte stood in place like a sharpshooter, bashing serves into a line of empty tennis-ball cans, picking them off like ducks in a shooting gallery. He barely worked up a sweat.

If Leconte's back doesn't completely heal, there's always a second career. "I'd like to be a movie star," he says, "An Indiana Jones or Jerry Lewis." Leconte admires Lewis not so much for his films as for his telethons. "He can make a joke and then suddenly change to be very serious or sometimes to cry," says the tennis star who remains France's Nutty Professional.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANThough he competes with the big boys on the tour, Leconte's collection of minicars is proof that he has yet to grow up completely PHOTOJEAN BIBARD/GAMMA-LIAISON[See caption above.] PHOTOJEAN BIBARD/GAMMA-LIAISONA real kiss at a fake wedding led to Henri's marriage to Brigitte. Maxim is now one. PHOTOB. RINDOFF/AGENCE ANGELI[See caption above.] PHOTOJEAN BIBARD/GAMMA-LIAISONRelaxing in Mougins, the Lecontes entertain Becker and his girlfriend, Bènèdicte Courtin.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)