Tennis: Cartwheeling king of the centre court

Petr Korda, the exuberant former ball-boy with the cartoon-character looks, may soon oust Pete Sampras as the world's No 1 player. John Roberts met him
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The Independent Online
THE KORDA family arrives for breakfast in the hotel dining area. Eyes feast on Regina, tall, blonde, stunning. By her side is Jessica, aged five, Regina in miniature, and Petr, the breadwinner, a skinny 6ft 3in, the spiky hair and startled facial expression at one with his nickname, "Woodstock". That is "Woodstock" as in Peanuts, certainly not peanuts.

Petr Korda has won $9,618,000 [pounds 6m] in official prize-money alone in 11 years on the professional tennis circuit, and his form since the turn of the year has elevated him to No 2 in the world. For weeks he has been perched on Pete Sampras's shoulder, tantalisingly close to overtaking the Wimbledon champion and becoming only the 14th player to rank No 1 since the ATP computer logged on in 1973. "I'm very quiet about it," Korda says. "If it happens it will be very nice, but I have no problem with it."

The Korda family setting has been repeated in dining rooms around the globe, although less frequently now that Regina, aged 30 like her husband, is expecting a second child in July. "I'll be alone at Wimbledon," Korda says sadly. "It's going to be a tough time, obviously, because the family is most important. We have to do what is best for the health of my wife."

Where is the baby to be born, since London appears to have been ruled out, denying the Lawn Tennis Association the possibility of a little Korda or Kordova in the wake of Rusedski? Is the happy event to take place in the couple's native Czech Republic, or at one of their homes in Monte Carlo and Florida, where Korda is due to compete in the Lipton Championships, which start on Thursday? "I can't say, we don't know yet," says Korda, who can be relied upon to celebrate with trademark scissor-kicks and cartwheels whether his dodgy back grumbles or not.

Those who saw television coverage of Korda's triumph at the Australian Open in January will recall the camera's fascination with Regina and Jessica as they watched the gifted left-hander with the sublime backhand fulfil his dream of winning a Grand Slam singles title.

Regina, outwardly a model of composure, knew better than most the joys and agonies crowding her husband's mind. Regina Rajchrtova's own professional career was curtailed by knee fractures, but not before she had scored impressive wins against Mary Joe Fernandez, Zina Garrison-Jackson and two of the Maleeva sisters, Manuela and Katerina.

Shortly after lifting the trophy at Melbourne Park, Korda telephoned his former coach, Nottingham's Tony Pickard. "Doctor!" Korda shouted down the line. "Doctor, we did it!" Pickard, best known for guiding Sweden's Stefan Edberg to the pinnacle of the sport and currently entrusted with Greg Rusedski's progress, was nicknamed "Doctor" by Korda after noticing that the player had a limp.

What Korda had dismissed for two years as a groin strain, chiefly because he was terrified of surgery, transpired to be a hernia. Pickard persuaded him to have the operation, and convinced him that it would not put an end to his his career.

"I quit in my brain when I had the problem with my groin," Korda says, "and when I went to have surgery I just said, `I want to be ready for the rest of my life like a normal human being without pain', and I just didn't want to play tennis again. My wife and Tony Pickard helped me to change my decision and to make me believe in myself, especially Tony. He made me enjoy my tennis again.

"Unfortunately, I had to have more surgery in 1996, on my right groin. Since the second surgery I have been really enjoying every moment, because I knew my clock was running quite fast and I wanted to enjoy that last five minutes on the court. I think the people can see it. Even if I am not playing well I am still enjoying the match."

Korda's exuberant game was evident at Wimbledon last year, when he fought back after losing the opening two sets against Sampras in the fourth round, winning consecutive tie-breaks before being edged out in the fifth set.

Two months later Korda reversed that result at the United States Open, defeating Sampras in five sets in the fourth round, only to have to retire in the third set of his quarter-final against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman because of sinus problems. This meant taking another time-out, "at five minutes to 12 in my career", in order to have a nose operation.

"I felt I was on top of my game when I beat Sampras," Korda says, the disappointment of defaulting against Bjorkman remaining with him. After surgery, he worked on improving his serve, the key, he considers, to regaining a place in the top 10 and finally securing a Grand Slam title to atone for the straight-sets defeat by Jim Courier in the final of the 1992 French Open.

"It was the best moment I have had on the court when I won the Australian Open," Korda says. "I think nobody would have put a penny on me three years ago."

No sooner had the Czechs celebrated the addition of a major tennis champion in the line of Navratilova, Lendl, Mandlikova, Kodes and Drobny than the hockey team put the icing on the cake with a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. Korda, who follows the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL, was overjoyed.

"I think it was the greatest moment for my country," he says. "It means a lot to me. I was with Dominic Hasek [the Czech Republic goaltender] last year in Key Biscayne and he told me how he was looking forward to playing in the Olympic Games. I called him in Nagano, and he was so thrilled. I asked the company that makes my rackets to make a copy of my winning racket from the Australian Open for the 22 guys on the team plus the three coaches. Each guy is going to have a Nagano '98 inscribed with his name and the number of his jersey."

A sense of wonder accompanies Korda, the legacy of the four years he spent from the age of 10 as a ball-boy for Davis Cup matches. "It was always great when I could be around the players," he recalls. "I was always ball-boying on the net, and it was great to be close to [Bjorn] Borg, to see his racket. I had his racket for one minute in my hand, and I was able to check his strings. He was stringing for 38 kilos. It was a fantastic moment.

"I saw the great players from a close distance, even in practice, because we were also ball-boying for the practice. It was a great, great time, and I learned a lot. I have known Ivan [Lendl] since he was 16, when he was playing a qualifying match for the Galea Cup, because my uncle was the coach of the Davis Cup team. Then I know Ivan from the other side as well, not just on the court."

The esteem in which the the Czechs hold Lendl and Martina Navratilova is undiminished, Korda says, by their decision to take United States citizenship. "You have to understand that wherever they live, they will always be from back where I was born, the former Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. They are the true champions. They wanted to be No 1 in the world. They became American because that was the only country where they knew how to become No 1 in the world."

Generally approachable and personable, Korda has a sensitive side to his nature. This can surface if, for example, his grasp of English is confused by a colloquialism. An American colleague unintentionally provoked suspicion in Korda's mind by using the term "off-centre" with regard to his behaviour in performing the scissor-kicks and cartwheels.

"It is my way to express my feelings," Korda says. "and maybe some people like this and some people don't like it. But as long as I am enjoying myself, I am going to express myself. And I don't think I am hurting the game with my scissor-kick or cartwheel.

"I think I brought something new to the game, something fresh, and you have to understand the people are paying for the tickets and they want ... I don't want to say they want to see some excitement, but, you know, before we had the guys Connors and McEnroe, they always brought some excitement. And, for me, it is most important whenever I leave the court that people are appreciating my game.

"I don't think I am off the centre. I think when I am on the court I am in the centre. When I beat Pete Sampras in the US Open, I didn't do the scissor-kick. I didn't feel it was right. I shook his hand, then I went to my chair, then I turned to my team and I just did three scissor- kicks. If I am going to have joy the way I am having at the moment, I love to do that. I am not just doing it to be popular. That scissor-kick is always pointing to my corner where my coach is sitting and my wife. I just want to show them how happy I am."

Korda does not seem to be offended by references to his physique, even though, to borrow from Bill Shankly, he appears to have tossed up with "Woodstock" for his legs, and lost. "I am very pleased with my muscles," he says. "I have long muscles. They look very thin, but I think they are very strong. Maybe I don't have muscles like, let us say, guys like [Mark] Philippoussis, but I can hit the ball harder than they can because I have a natural swing which I would never trade with anyone."

Had he ever tried to gain weight? "I was trying, but it is impossible with my metabolic system. You would be surprised how much I eat. I like the Czech kitchen, but my favourite food at the moment is Italian. Everybody who is around me just can't believe how I am not gaining any weight, but I am burning quite a lot."

Prior to the Australian Open, Korda was best known for an extraordinary display of willpower in winning the $6m Grand Slam Cup in Munich in 1993. The prize-money for this event is obscene, but the $1.625m Korda received for his week's work was, well, peanuts, considering the restoration job he performed at a time when the word from America was that the sport might be dying.

"Finally, I won a big tournament with the big players," Korda sighs. "So many people were telling me I was just going for my shots. But, you know, that is my game. The last three days I beat Bruguera, No 4 in the world, Sampras, No 1, and Stich, No 2." He seems have overlooked the biggest challenge, cramp.

Korda has been described as the last great Czech player. He wonders if the current generation lacks the hunger that drove many of their predecessors to play for passports. Nowadays, he adds, the Czech coaches are the men on the move. Has Korda given any thought to becoming a coach? "No," he says resolutely, "when I retire I think I am going to try to be a father."

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