Tennis: Krajicek displays a new maturity

A Dutch former champion looks a potential title-winner again, injuries permitting. By Richard Edmondson
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The Independent Online
RICHARD KRAJICEK'S fitness trainer flew in yesterday to treat the 1996 champion's left knee. Yet many believe that it is not medicine or scalpel that can help the giant Dutchman, rather that he needs someone to treat the space between his temples.

You know how the New York police feel as Godzilla conducted his traffic violations when Krajicek is at the top of his game. He is huge, and he is unstoppable. On other occasions, however, he can be as ferocious and sturdy as a butterfly.

The identity of the character on the other side of the net has little to do with Krajicek's result. It is more how the chemicals are mixing in the man's mind. When it is windy, so is he. "You can tell immediately, as soon as he comes out before a game," says one who knows him well. "Sometimes he is strong and concentrating and at other times he looks up at the sky with a funny look on his face. Then you know he has no chance."

The odd expression belonged to New Zealand's Brett Steven in the first round when Krajicek produced tennis almost as sublime as in his championship year. It was not until the Dutchman's sixth service game that he surrendered his first point on delivery. "I played very good for the first set and a half against Steven," Krajicek said. "I think I've had my moments, but it's a long way to go."

Statistics suggest this was not a unique occurrence. Krajicek led the tour in first serve points won last year (86 per cent), at the same time sending down 987 aces. It is a useful skill to possess at Wimbledon.

The immediate future looks bright: it looks orange in fact, if you consider the big man's draw. The 26-year-old can chart a path to the semi-finals without meeting a fellow seed, and the highest-ranked figure in his half is the No 11 seed Jonas Bjorkman. This path of rose petals is not, however, the advantage it might be with Krajicek.

In the Netherlands they reel off the number of times their man has self- destructed from apparently advantageous draws. It is said he needs tough assignments to concentrate his mind and progress. The year Krajicek became the first Dutchman to win a Grand Slam singles title here in SW19. He beat Stich and Sampras along the way and dropped just a single set in the championship.

Krajicek also seemed to forget about the injuries that have been a regular dandruff throughout his career. Andre Agassi once said that the man "starts limping even if he looks at a court". The man, to be fair, has done more than his allotted time under anaesthetic. He has damaged a shoulder, suffered tendinitis in both knees and, last year, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus. The other knee will receive similar treatment very soon. He is on painkillers.

Agassi has also opined that "Crackerjack" will win Wimbledon again this year and be piled up with prizes on Sunday week. Krajicek himself thinks it would be improper to argue with his fellow former champion. He is a more mature figure these days following the arrival of his daughter, Emma, in March to enlarge the family unit he has formed with Daphne Deckers, his television presenter partner.

His public relations has also come on a bundle and he no longer feels the need to refer to the athletes of the women's tour as "fat, lazy pigs". "They may be doing even better than the men," he says. "They get a lot of attention and I think it is logical. In the end it is good to see. If there is a change to women's tennis it is automatically good for the men's game."

Now, finally, is the time to discover if his game has matured at a comparable rate with his sexual politics. In the third round he faces Germany's Nicolas Kiefer. "In general, I think my game has improved [since he won the championship]," he says. "I am more consistent and make more returns and, at the moment, I feel very concentrated and very focused. I think I have a higher level of play, but I don't think I've reached the way I played in the second week again. But I have won it before, so I know what it's like to win."

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