The first time Henri Leconte played in Scotland he was late to arrive and his excuse sounded like it was right up there with the “Dog ate my homework” classic from a lesson-shy but clearly bright and inventive schoolboy.
The Frenchman was delayed into Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart in 1997 by having to look after his wife who’d fallen from a horse. Not impressed? Ah, but the steed was at Mme Leconte’s work, and a pretty specialised form of work, too. She was a mounted bullfighter, the only female rejoneadora in the whole of Europe. But of course she was. And of course Leconte was married to her. Flash as hell in his pomp, he brandished his racquet like it was a sword suddenly brought out from behind a cape. Mais oui!
He’s not with Marie Sara anymore. She was Leconte’s second wife, the first having been Brigitte, whom he met when they were thrown together to pretend to be just-hitched for a Roland Garros photo-stunt. His third marriage, to Florentine, broke down three years ago and I’m wondering if his days of being a bull in a wedding ring shop might be over.
“I love love,” he says, “I love passion. You have to be passionate about everything and about the person you are with. I did that in my first life, second life also, third life too. Now I’m 55 but you know my friend I think I will get married again. Four times. Yeah, sure, of course, fantastique. Why not?”
It takes a while this week to track down Leconte to talk about his return to Scotland in the Brodies Invitational at Gleneagles. He finally phones in the early morning when your correspondent is getting out of the shower, the call being answered by my six-year-old daughter, who is giggling at what’s being said to her as I approach to take over. Small fingers have to be prised from the receiver and I’m thrown a huge sulk as she stomps off. The old charmer, I’m thinking, although I also think this: that these two probably share the same silly sense of humour.
If footage existed of Leconte conducting an interview the whole time bouncing on a pogo stick then I would show it to my daughter. Same with the press conference in which he yowled like a dog throughout. She would probably say: “But Dad, I thought you told me he was a tennis player?” He was, and a fine one. Maybe he didn’t win a major, blaming Boris Becker for that, but he was proud in 1991 of helping France hoist the Davis Cup for the first time in 59 years. His best-ever ranking was No 5 in the world and maybe more importantly for Wimbledon, which is sometimes called a sporting fortnight for people who don’t actually like sport, he was an entertainer.
A born stylist, naturellement, but a born clown as well. Another time, asked about his tournament prospects by a rotund journalist and who he’d like to play next round, he quipped: “You.” He’s struggling to recall the pogo stick, which suggests to me that in his career he may also have been interviewed in the nude, dressed as a giant Camembert and while singing on a biciclette as “Onion Johnny Hallyday” and that these japes now tend to blur into one great, big Jeux Sans Frontieres revival. “I remember my dog impersonation, though,” he says. “Why did I do that again, did a question bother me? I could have done my duck also. You would like to hear, yes?… ” At this I almost summon my daughter back to the phone and leave them to it.
“To explain: everyone needs to relax a little. We in the beautiful tennis world – players, journalists – need to realise that we are very fortunate. This is not like a job. This is not like work. We should not take everything so seriously. There are so many problems [in the not always beautiful real world], things much worse than someone losing a tennis match. When I lost I never died. Really, I never did!”
He realises this is an old-fashioned standpoint. It dates from a different time in the game. More innocent. Wooden implements. More fun. No massage breaks, just barley water. And more characters like H. Leconte.
“You have to enjoy playing tennis,” he continues, “and I did. The game is just a game. That was my philosophy. Now it’s more business which wasn’t the object for me. Tennis in my time was unique, special and sometimes comedy. I was able to play, make my own money and be myself.”
Leconte was born in Lillers in north-east France, a town with a tempestuous history ranging over many wars and changes of ownership. Local life calmed down and the place became famous for shoes; thus our man gets the “Notable people” section of Lillers’ Wikipedia page all to himself.
Winner of the French Open junior title in 1981, Leconte properly came to Wimbledon’s attention four years later when a dazzling win over world No 2 Ivan Lendl fired him to the quarter-finals, although he reckons it was an earlier match which endeared him to the strawberry set.
“This was my first time on the Centre Court, my day. I wanted to do something for the crowd to remember me. I was playing good and then this beautiful white butterfly landed at my feet as I was about to serve. Maybe some guys would have swatted it away and one or two might have stamped on it – you can guess who they might be! I picked up the butterfly and it hopped onto my racket. So I walked it over to the edge of the court and it flew into the stands. The people, they went nuts. I had a good relationship with Wimbledon from that day, a fantastique one. And it still exists.”
This was, as we say, a different era when the raciest tabloids showed how important a sport tennis was to them by instituting Top of the Bots polls. Gabriela Sabatini would be No 1 among the women, and Leconte, the men’s title-holder, stepped out with the dusky Argentine for a while (can we even say “dusky Argentine” any more, twice in the same paragraph as well?).
By 1986 when Leconte reached the semi-finals at SW19, his best achievement there, he’d acquired a sizeable fan club and a pretty hands-on one as well. “It was, you know, a physical experience getting in and out of the club,” he laughs. “You have to be careful when you’re famous and not bad-looking. How I turned out I’m very fortunate; my mother did a great job! I had two dreams as a kid. No 1 was to be a tennis player. No 2 was to look like James Bond. I’m still hoping the second one might happen though maybe it’s not possible now.”
It wasn’t only his derriere they liked at the All-England Club; some could appreciate his strokeplay. Leconte is regularly held up as one of the best and most stylish players never to win Wimbledon, maybe third on the list behind Ilie Nastase and, at the top, Ken Rosewall. He is pleased to be appreciated for the finer points of the game as he regards tennis as art. “I play shots that even I don’t understand,” he once said. He has another go at explaining his aesthetic now: “I’m a leftie and therefore I had to make quick reactions always. Sometimes I would come to the net and give the other guy a shot which was, you know, a little flower. Or a zest of lemon. When you have the talent you are very lucky.”
Leconte’s relationship with the French tennis public wasn’t always quite so swoonsome. This is understandable. France had a vested interest in him winning; to them he had to be more than just a dashing player with a flashing forehand. Plus the French are – how you say? – French. If an Englishman, particularly a well-brought-up one able to afford a Wimbledon debenture, doesn’t like something he will probably try to avoid saying it, instead displaying his impressive skillset in manners and politeness. A Frenchman will simply blurt it out.
“It was very hard for me to have a big romance with the Paris crowd,” Leconte explains. “They are so passionate and they want you to win all the time. But you can’t win all the time and so there’s this big pressure. Tim Henman must have felt it the same when he couldn’t win Wimbledon.” Ah, but when Tiger Tim delivered a kittenish performance on Centre Court the people merely sighed and only after repeated failure did a tiny groan slip out. “Ha ha, that was probably true but for me in the final of the French Open in 1988 against Mats Wilander it was really hard. I was trying my best but I couldn’t win the match. So the crowd booed and jeered and when that happened it was impossible to win.
“Afterwards, I was very sad. I made a little speech saying that I hoped the crowd would come to understand my game maybe a little better. I hope for French players now it’s different. Thirty years ago, to go to Roland Garros, the spectators had to be licensed [have membership of a tennis club] so these people thought they knew tennis better than me! But that’s the French for you: so opinionated.”
He offers another example of this when we discuss the World Cup and France’s prospects, Leconte reckoning the team can make the semi-finals and after that, who knows? “In 1998 no one was behind [manager] Aime Jacquet and then, when France won the tournament, everyone was like: ‘Of course he’s the best coach in the world!’ Pah, so opinionated. But as long as you understand this about the French, it’s okay.” And Leconte can have his moments in this regard. Flick through his old cuttings and you’ll find a travel questionnaire where, during a harmless chat about favourite destinations, he unleashed a verbal volley against his least favourite, Switzerland (too boring) and America (a cultural desert) among them.
Leconte, while pursuing what the old song called “the bright elusive butterfly of love”, has also roamed the world in search of decent appreciation for his corny sense of humour and may have found this in Australia where they let him loose in the commentary boxes and, being less formal and uptight than other nations, don’t mind which players he may offend by pretending to fall asleep during their matches. The same nonsense transfers to the veterans’ circuit and you might think that Leconte is happiest here and there are times when the jokes are going well that he wouldn’t disagree with you.
As an elite competitor his sense of fun had to be restricted to pre-Hawkeye gags to dispute line calls when he’d pretend to be blind, tapping his racket in front of him like a white stick. Now, though, he can unleash the full repertoire of silly walks, animal noises, wind-ups and mimicry. He hopes Gleneagles will be such an occasion where gags and shots all hit their mark.
He’s played there before, having been recruited by Judy Murray for a charity event, and is full of admiration for Scotland’s grande dame of tennis and her super-talented progeny, while hoping that Andy can beat his injuries and get back on court. “He’s a fantastique player and it’s sad for Scotland that he’s struggling right now. I really hope he can find a solution to play [at Wimbledon] but it doesn’t look great. I don’t want him to stop now but sometimes these things you can’t control. Sometimes you push the body too hard – and myself I know because of three operations to my back – and eventually it says: ‘Enough, fini.’”
Murray is one of the Big Four and even if all of them make it to the All-England Club next month it could be their last time as the gilded quartet. Leconte acknowledges this and acknowledges their greatness, even though a dominance built on brilliant athleticism has reduced the scope for too many more characters in the game. As tennis has become a business, robotic players have emerged. Leconte has frequently despaired about this and impressions of the worst offenders sometimes find their way into his on-court malarkey but today he has been adopting a more diplomatic line which prompts me to wonder, if the route to James Bond is closed off, whether he might one day venture into politics.
There follows a distressing howl which I assume to be his famous dog impression. “Never. If you pay me to go there, my friend, I don’t go!”
Henri Leconte will be playing at the Brodies Invitational - the only Scottish fixture in the ATP Champions Tour - on 22 and 23 June at Gleneagles. The event also features Tim Henman, Thomas Muster, Henri Leconte and Colin Fleming, as well as Judy Murray and some of Scotland’s up-and-coming junior tennis talent.
Tickets are available at https://brodiesinvitational.com/get-tickets