Tennis: Leconte warms up audience for Becker's return: renchman provides another virtuoso performance as a German hero waits in the wings. John Roberts reports from Stuttgart

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The Independent Online
THERE are worse ways of spending an afternoon than to admire the joie de vivre of Henri Leconte at work, though similar thoughts were rudely interrupted during the Australian Open less than a month ago, when the 30-year-old Frenchman had to be scraped from the court, a victim of heat exhaustion.

With little chance of a repeat, unless something goes calamitously wrong with the boiler at the Schleyer-Halle, Leconte grasped a wild card and earned dollars 33,800 ( pounds 22,000) by winning his first- round match at the Eurocard Open. His other reward is a second-round match against the French No 1, Cedric Pioline, the runner-up to Pete Sampras at the United States Open.

There is dollars 2.25m in the pot here at the richest event on the ATP Tour, outside the finale in Frankfurt, dollars 355,000 going to the winner and dollars 18,000 to first-round losers, such as the Spaniard Javier Sanchez, who was whittled away by Leconte's superior shots yesterday, 6-2, 7-6.

The Frenchman's matinee performance was appreciated by an audience gearing itself for weightier matters German, chiefly the return of an apparently revitalised Boris Becker. A virtual write-off at the end of last year, except as a multi-millionaire, bridegroom and father-to-be, the three-times Wimbledon champion successfully defended the Milan championship on Sunday after 12 months without winning a title.

Leconte encountered Becker in Marseilles a couple of weeks ago. The French left-hander had recovered from his mishap in Melbourne, and the German had shaken off the confetti and handed his son, Noah Gabriel, to his wife, Barbara. Leconte won the second-round match, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. Becker then moved on to Italy, where his form improved to the extent that in the final he defeated Petr Korda, the sensation of December's Grand Slam Cup in Munich, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Becker, whose ranking has slipped to No 14 in the world, speaks of returning to the top 10 as fast as possible - 'that's where I belong' - though he has semi-final points to defend here, and Michael Stich, the defending champion, is a projected quarter-final opponent.

We must wait until tomorrow to see if Becker's form holds for five consecutive days. Granted two days grace after his efforts in Milan, the seventh seed opens against another compatriot, the Czech-born David Prinosil, who advanced through the pre-qualifying event. Stich plays today, the Australian Wally Masur presenting a potentially difficult hurdle.

From a German standpoint, the tournament has already produced an anti-climax in the performance of Marc Goellner. Losing to Stefan Edberg is an experience many players have suffered, but the 23-year- old from Bonn's capitulation in the final set of a 6-7, 7-6, 6-0 defeat raised questions about his potential.

Goellner went into the match having won his previous two contests against the former Wimbledon champion, albeit on the slower clay surface. After producing the shots that mattered in the first set tie- break, he created chances on Edberg's serve early in the second set, and was swift to repel the Swede's attacks. Indeed, faced with three set points in the 10th game, the German hit a backhand winner followed by four consecutive aces (he hit 25 in total).

But after salvaging only two points in the second tie-break, Goellner ceased to be a factor. Edberg powered through the final set in 19 minutes, aided by seven double-faults from his opponent, four of them in the third game.

Goellner is sporting a new outfit, which features three prominent Adidas stripes on the peak and crown of his cap, which he wears back to front. By the end of the match it appeared as if a small motor cycle had been ridden over his head.

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