Tennis: Leconte plays the clown, McEnroe the tennis

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THE CHEAPER seats in London SW7 were taken by the sort of people who could not face pitching a tent on the pavement in SW19. The remainder of the sold out arena - which has had 30,000 people through the doors this week - was occupied by tourists from the Continent and Brits in Cashmere shepherding in their bemused-looking children. Tim Henman's parents were there too, perhaps with an eye on their son's retirement prospects.

Before the players trudged wearily onto court a buzz circulated around the gods at the Albert Hall, the excitement circulating like sound in the whispering gallery at St Paul's Cathedral. A sulky-looking Henri Leconte led the way followed, several yards behind, by a peeved-looking John McEnroe.

McEnroe naturally drew the warmer applause as the players were introduced, mid knock-up. His impressive career statistics were announced as the former Wimbledon champion looped loose-armed left-handed forehands over the net. Ranked No 1 in singles for 170 consecutive weeks, in doubles for 270 weeks, the current Davis Cup captain had won 77 singles and 77 doubles titles. His opponent Leconte, we were told, had won rather less.

The 37-year-old Leconte appeared on court dressed in a pair of high, black geeky Euro shorts, white shirt and matching socks of a length that only a Frenchman would choose. McEnroe, the older man by three years, is ageing rather more gracefully, carrying less weight and emotional baggage than his opponent. Post-match comments from both players confirmed that there is ill-feeling following an on-court contretemps at a recent tournament in Hong Kong. McEnroe afterwards implied that given their career records against each other, including a run of 18 consecutive defeats for Leconte, winning means rather more to the Frenchman than the American.

Both players seemed subdued, their dispute having blurred the line between playing and fighting and Leconte tried to change the mood and engage a reserved crowd with a wisecrack about a second serve which he deemed to be out. "The ball was so slow how could you miss it?" he demanded of the umpire, but that summed up the afternoon; Leconte produced the better lines, McEnroe the better tennis.

For Leconte it was point lost, then game lost, then set lost as his form nose-dived like the sponsors' car dangled above his head. Two aces in the seventh game took McEnroe to a 5-2 lead and although Leconte made deuce in the eighth, a lob-too-far and an error on the next point made it set to McEnroe.

The end when it came was swift. Trailing on all fronts - 6-2, 4-1 and 30-15 - Leconte suddenly stopped, refusing to chase a McEnroe cross-courter. Standing still, face red, hands on his hips, the crowd weren't sure whether he had injured his pride or his back. It turned out to be the latter, but the game was over already.

At the end there was time for the obligatory comedy act. Leconte levered himself up and down in the umpire's chair, his goofy expression conveying an unfortunate impression of a senile old man in a Stannah stairlift. It was left to McEnroe to accept the trophy and give the winner's interview while Henri played to the crowd.

Plus ca change, as they say in France.