From venom to vaudeville with sweet and sour French dressing

Tennis: Wimbledon; Giles Smith sees Mary Pierce and Henri Leconte enjoy differing fortunes
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The Independent Online
Ah, Wimbledon - with its sunshine and strawberries and tea in marquees. Is there any other sporting occasion so quintessentially French? It was hard to imagine one yesterday, sitting out on Court 14, watching Henri Leconte, the grand old man of Gallic tennis, and then Mary Pierce, the new young woman. "Allez Henri," shouted the crowd. "Allez Marie."

The fact that Pierce showed up at all was something worth shouting about in any language. Late-breaking flu caused her to cancel her 1993 Wimbledon debut. Then last year she pulled out only minutes before the gates opened, mysteriously referring to "reasons beyond my control". Some linked this to worries about her estranged father, who has in the past cruelly menaced her from the stands, incurring a ban from the circuit. Others assumed more darkly that she was running scared: the new hot-shot, reluctant to risk her reputation on grass.

This year there were no excuses. Pierce did, though, make her entrance on to the court enthrallingly late, long after her opponent and cutting short a phone call by the umpire which was obviously designed to ascertain her whereabouts.

Tall and with her blonde hair in an elaborate plait, she walked in with her chin high, managing to look at once haughty and tense. Her coach, Nick Bollettieri, who also looks after Boris Becker, was ready for her in the front row. "Right here, Mary," he said reassuringly as she passed.

Pierce, who is currently ranked No 4 in the world, may have been reassured, too, to notice that her first-round opponent, Sandra Dopfer from Austria, had the best part of her left leg strapped in bandaging which was only a couple of layers short of becoming a full cast. This was not the most taxing of encounters for Pierce, who nevertheless worked herself up to some devastating bursts of aggression. Critics say she has one shot only - a thunderous forehand. On yesterday's evidence, this was to overlook a few other things: the thunderous serve, the thunderous backhand, and the thunderous volley, to name but those. This year at Wimbledon she may turn out to be very glad she came.

Whether the crowd warms to her is another matter. Pierce has an unnerving way of smiling to herself at inappropriate moments, and there is in her gracefulness a sense of perpetually imminent implosion which seems to transmit an edginess into the stands. When she came out to serve for the match (which she won, 6-1, 6-2) there was just one person noisily clapping: Bollettieri.

Showing up and winning fans have never been Leconte's problems. He is the eternal showman, and if you could guarantee an audience you could probably get him round for a game of Swingball in your garden.

However, Leconte is nearly 32 and, beset by injury, has decided to make this his last Wimbledon. He was a member of the French Davis Cup team of 1991 which beat an American team that included Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. That aside, he is one of the game's great nearly men. This of course, serves him extremely well at Wimbledon, where he is subject to that special affection the place reserves for major under-achievers; if, that is, they happen to be as handsome as Leconte and have a bit of vaudeville up their sleeves.

Against Javier Frana, a 28-year-old Argentinian, ranked No 34, Leconte ran the old repertoire by us one last time (next year's French Open will be his his final grand slam tournament). What can you say about a man who, through a bit of business with a ball girl, gets a laugh out of the crowd during the knock-up?

He puffed out his cheeks like someone surfacing at the deep end. He windmilled his arms to whip up the applause and then made that gesture orchestra conductors make when they want silence. He blew a rapturous kiss off the frame of his racket when he fluked a mishit down the line. Poking a volley into the tramlines, he let out the anguished cry of a seagull slammed in a door. He made an expression of exaggerated relief when a lob was called out - although it was never going in from the moment it left his opponent's racket. And when his own shots hit the line, he did that energetic jump and spin movement he does, as if he has just backed into an electric fence.

In short, he did everything except win any sets. Frana took the match simply, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. This is the downside of being an old stager like Leconte. Your legacy will not be your Grand Slam trophies: it will be the startlingly good impression you once did of a chicken.

Afterwards, he was understandably sentimental about a place that has always warmed to him. "This is the temple of tennis," he said. "I'll always remember it for the silence, the way the fans say nothing but respect you. The surface here is mythical and the crowd have always been behind me. I just wish I'd been able to get to the quarters or semis. But it wasn't to be."