Pioline pins hopes on high return

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The Independent Online
The last Frenchman to win Wimbledon wore long trousers and bounded the net in exultation at his victory. Yvon Petra was born in Indo-China and was a prisoner of war until 1942 when he re-emerged to dominate wartime tennis in France and take the first post-war Wimbledon title. Judging by the exuberant bunny hop with which Cedric Pioline greeted his own epic semi-final win over Michael Stich late on Friday evening, the Frenchman would join Pathfinder on Mars if the tricolor was raised once more over Centre Court this afternoon.

The forecast, it has to be said, is not good. "I am tired of this man," Pioline said of his opponent Pete Sampras. "He has beaten me eight times in a row." Actually, it is only seven, but he may be thinking ahead. Vitas Gerulaitis used to fortify himself against another fearful mauling by Jimmy Connors with the thought: "No one has ever beaten me 17 times in a row." Pioline's hopes might be pinned on such slender threads today.

"If Cedric keeps up that level of play, I think he has a good shot," Michael Stich said. "But I doubt he is able to do that." Arguably, no one, not even the three-times champion Sampras, could sustain the level of brilliance Pioline - and Stich, for that matter - produced in the closing two sets of the semi-final.

"Come on, Cedric" will never be a warcry to match Braveheart ("Allez Pioline" had a more stylish ring to it) but for a precious hour or so, the Centre Court crowd forgot all about their absent British guests and revelled in the clash of wills between the gatecrashers. From the first and second seeds the tennis would have been sublime, from men ranked 44 (Pioline) and 88 (Stich) in the world it was near miraculous, a tribute to the inspirational powers of Wimbledon, even on a grey night.

Not since Agassi destroyed Becker's serve on a similar evening five years before has the Centre Court seen returns of such breathtaking pace and precision as Pioline produced time and again, particularly off his backhand. Yet, put a blond wig on the man, tuck in his shirt, squint a bit and the volleying behind a solid serve - the anticipation and the reflex judgement of length - was pure Edberg. "He played volleys, I don't know where he got them from," Stich said, retirement prompting a graciousness which was rarely evident in the rest of an unfulfilled career. "He played incredible."

By a strange coincidence, Friday was the birthday of Henri Leconte. July 4th, of course. Like the cavalier left-hander, Pioline is a Parisian. But there, until Friday evening at least, the similarity ended. Where Leconte was a riot of expression and emotion - "if only you could quote his face" as one American journalist once put it - Pioline is deadpan.

None of Pioline's raking passes, completed with a flamboyant flourish, would have disgraced Leconte in his prime, but you will have to look elsewhere for enlightenment or recognition that this was anything out of the ordinary. Pioline lets his tennis do the talking. His English is patchy, but even the French press have despaired of understanding this hugely talented and utterly private man.

His single-mindedness has been the stuff of French farce at times. Pioline became a disciple of Henri Dumont, more guru than coach, who refused to let his man practise with anyone other than a chosen few and subjected him to a complicated programme of neuro-linguistical training. Words like "concentration" were used to trigger instinctively positive responses. Dumont used to coach Pioline by phone. But when he lost eight successive finals, Pioline's instinct was to fire Dumont and reduce his phone bills.

Up to now, the French have not been forced to consider him as anything more than a talented maverick, who did not even have the saving grace of being a good clown like Leconte. Pioline has flattered to deceive for the most of his eight-year career. An unfortunate cameo appearance as fall guy to Sampras in the final of the US Open in 1993 seemed to summarise his lack of ambition. Pioline (or "Pie-o-line" as the Americans dismissively called him) did not quite know why he was there and he was certainly not prepared to be anything other than a gallant loser, a role he played to near perfection in narrow defeat by Boris Becker on the old Court One two years ago.

There were glimpses that sunlit evening of the flair at Pioline's fingertips, but no coherent picture. Glimpses of fallibility too. Before the clock flicked to 8.39pm on Friday and Pioline thrust his hands in the air, he had not won a five-set match for five years. Pioline clings to the belief that he has just been a slow learner.

"I am a different player from four years ago, just as Pete is," he said. "I'm more mature. The US Open happened so fast, I didn't realise what was going on, but now I really appreciate what it is like to be in a Grand Slam final."

Yet, the Frenchman is of tough stock. His mother was a Romanian volleyball international, his father played volleyball for the Racing Club de Paris and Cedric himself learned his trade on the clay courts of the Club. His own career was the slip of surgeon's knife away from extinction when a cartilage injury to his right knee as a teenager forced corrective surgery on his left and threatened permanent disability. His rolling gait is the only legacy of the operation, his speed around the court is testimony to its success. "He is a great athlete," as Sampras said.

Pioline, though you would not know to look at his calm expression and nonchalant manner, has surprised himself. He has crept through the bottom half of the draw, beating only one seed, Wayne Ferreira, along the way, but extracting the best form of his life from a fortnight of rain and arriving unseeded and unheralded on Centre Court in full flow. Neither Rusedski nor Stich, two punishing servers, could match the Frenchman's quicksilver returns nor outwit him at the net. Pioline said he could have played another three sets against Stich, so fresh did he feel. But as Tim Henman found, playing out of your skin for three days in a row saps the spirit.

Pioline has to raise himself once more. Sampras "is not a machine," he said. "If he is thinking too much; he can miss something and I can do a good shot." The force of the Centre Court crowd will be with him.

No one wants another walkover, except Sampras perhaps. No one beats Pioline eight times in a row. Allez Cedric.