Tennis: Krajicek is the players' choice

Ronald Atkin says the Dutch giant is showing a new maturity
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The Independent Online
WHEN RICHARD Krajicek won Wimbledon in 1996 he was so hot that the All England Club were fortunate their sacred real estate was not scarred by scorch marks. Three years on, the 27-year-old Dutch giant claims he is much stronger now, both mentally and physically, something with which his fellow professionals clearly concur since they have installed him as their favourite for the Wimbledon title.

To hear him tell it now, Krajicek was a shambling wreck when he hoisted the most important prize in tennis. He had lost in the first round the two previous years, he was not comfortable manoeuvring his 6ft 5in around on grass and his expectations were no higher than the shaven turf.

Even when Krajicek caught fire, sweeping the champion Pete Sampras aside in the quarter-finals, his self-belief was stuck several notches below his playing form. It was only at the champions' dinner on the evening of his victory, when he saw his name engraved on the trophy beside those of Bjorn Borg and Sampras, that realisation struck home. "That was a pretty nice feeling," he conceded.

After a post-Wimbledon low, Krajicek's life has become pretty nice again. His love match with the former Playboy centrefold Daphne Deckers has been blessed with a daughter, Emma, now 15 months, and fatherhood, he says, has assisted the maturing process, as well as cutting his sleep time by a couple of hours every night.

At the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne in March, the week of Emma's first birthday, Krajicek recalled that after his first-round win the father in him was called into action. "I got up about 2.30 in the morning, warmed a bottle, gave it to Emma and lights out." The experience clearly did him no lasting harm, since he went on to win the Super Nine event, defeating Sampras for the fourth straight time along the way.

Afterwards Sampras said Krajicek had the tools to become world number one. The player does not dispute that opinion, but what he does ponder is whether he yet possesses the heart and mind needed to make a go of the top job in tennis. "At the moment I feel very strong physically and my tennis has improved but the question of heart and mind is something I'm working very hard on," he said. "I'm trying everything possible to get to number one, just working my way up easily."

Victories this year in the Battersea tented event and at Key Biscayne propelled the Dutchman to fourth in the world, which he feels is a deserved ranking. "I'm very happy with the way I'm thinking about my career, how I'm practising, how professional I am and the maturity I've shown on and off court." But he cannot be accused of over-confidence. "It is a stupid way to lose a tennis match, through over-confidence, especially in Grand Slams."

The son of Czech immigrants, Krajicek spent far more hours at practice as a child than he wanted to because of his father, Petr, whom he describes as "fanatical" in his desire to see the boy succeed. "At 12 when I lost in a tournament my whole world used to collapse," he recalls. That tortured childhood is still reflected in his ups and downs on the circuit. After interrupting Sampras's Wimbledon hegemony, Krajicek lost in the 1997 quarter- finals to Tim Henman and in last year's semi-finals - 15-13 in the fifth set - to Goran Ivanisevic.

The other legacy of his youth is a tendency to suffer injuries to a body into which he grew rather quickly, once sprouting seven inches in two years.

He opted for his latest operation, on the left knee, last November rather than take up the place for which he had qualified at the ATP World Championships. The intention was to be fully fit for the 1999 season and to make it his best ever. In addition to his two titles, Krajicek has been a quarter- finalist at Indian Wells and Tokyo but he has performed poorly to date in Grand Slams, exiting in the third round at the Australian and the second at the French.

For the past nine years, an extraordinary span in tennis, Krajicek has had the Australian Rohan Goetzke as his coach. Goetzke also occupies the roles of brother and best friend, so he had no hesitation in rubbishing Krajicek's lack of effort when he found it difficult to buckle down again to life on the circuit after Wimbledon 1996 and crashed to first-round defeat at the US Open three months afterwards.

Since that high-low period of three summers ago, the player who once dismissed women tennis players as "fat pigs" and who used to avoid people as much as possible "because it only costs energy to talk to them" has rebuilt himself into a model professional popular with everybody, especially his daughter Emma, who recognises Daddy when he is playing on TV.

"She saw me at the Battersea final and I'm told she smiled at the television," he said. "When she saw Greg Rusedski [his opponent that day] she threw tomatoes."