Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Leconte's artistry given the brush-off again: Becker calls time on the curiosities of a court jester and continues to make advances on familiar territory

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The Independent Online
IN THE age of wham-bam tennis, Henri Leconte is like a painter trying to set up his easel on a motorway. Yesterday he again went down in heavy traffic when Boris Becker clattered him into submission on the Centre Court. These are barren times for art.

'He's one of the most exciting shotmakers in the game. I'm a big fan of his,' Becker said of Leconte as the Frenchman dusted himself down after losing 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6. This is Leconte's dilemma: everybody admires his style, but none of the top players would want his record of succumbing to power and brawn.

With John McEnroe gone, this year's Wimbledon is unlikely to yield a clearer illustration of what has happened to men's tennis. Not that Becker relies on clottish, wall-demolishing might to win his matches. It is just that Leconte's flashing, ball-shaving elaborations have become an anachronism in the blizzard of unplayable serves and truncated rallies that characterise the modern game.

A bit like America, with whom he shares his birthday, Leconte is in danger of being left behind by history. He is 30 on men's final day, so the chances are that he will never improve on his best performance in 13 years on the Grand Slam circuit: runner-up in the 1988 French Open.

His audience seems not to care. Yesterday his fans shouted 'come on Henry' - with scant regard for French pronunciation - in appreciation of efforts to uphold a dying trade. There was even a 'go-on-my-son'.

Leconte is something of a sporting icon in his native country, where his facial tics and on-court cabaret turns have rooted him in the French tradition of athletic mavericks. Jim Courier or Pete Sampras never did chicken impressions as they walked along the baseline. Michael Stich never orchestrated his own cheerleading, as Leconte did yesterday during his revival in the third set.

It was not enough. With Leconte, it never is. For all his aggression and slashing brilliance, the rectitude and coolness of Becker's play were insurmountable. Try as he might to slow the pace of the game with long walks around the perimeter of the court, Leconte was always backpedalling in time's headlights.

It was an encounter depicted, by some, in national stereotypes. Becker, the sun-bleached German mixing force and precision in his quest for a fourth Wimbledon title; Leconte, using his racket like a sculptor's knife but prone to all the (supposed) failings of France and its temperament. However accurate these pen portraits, it has to be said that Becker is moving through this tournament with an unusual aura of confidence.

The self-crucifying tendency in Becker was absent. He looked lean and mean. The legs jigged about during change-overs but there was none of the self-loathing and crying-in-the- wilderness that has made watching Becker such a mixed experience.

People say that his relationship with Barbara Feltus, the German actress, has become a source of stability and comfort. Then there is the Wimbledon factor. Ask Becker why he plays so well here and the answer is as eloquent as it is instant. 'The spirit, the smell, the atmosphere,' he said, leaving out, of course, 'the money'.

'I'm here for the 10th summer in a row. I don't think any man played better here in the last 10 years than I did,' he said. 'I just think about the past and that makes me do better.' Becker believes he is playing at 95 per cent of his best, which is no bad strike-rate as he moves into a quarter- final match with Stich.

Leconte, for all his near-misses, is no shunned craftsman. With career earnings getting on for dollars 3m ( pounds 2m), he can afford to be ejected from Wimbledon with applause chiming in his ears. But for persistent back injuries - and an attack of a blood disorder in 1987 - Leconte might yet have captured a Grand Slam title to add to all the eulogies. 'I like to watch him,' Becker said. 'I hope he can play for another 10 years because it would be great for the game.'

Richard Harris, the actor, would have agreed. He wore white pin-stripe trousers, a rugby shirt belted round the stomach and a Muslim cap as he applauded Leconte's minor renaissance in the third. Harris, dressed like this, and with his reputation for uproariousness, seemed the perfect theatrical ally for Leconte. Ronnie Corbett or Brian Rix would just not have done.

The bond between Wimbledon and Leconte is not broken yet (he is a particular favourite with women). 'He was more powerful. He was better than me, so he deserved it,' Leconte said after the Becker match. 'But I'm not going to give up. I'll be back next year. Nothing is better than playing on the Centre Court.'

And few things, with tennis the way it is, are better than watching him.

----------------------------------------------------------------- BECKER v STICH HEAD TO HEAD ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1990 Paris Carpet QF Becker 6-1 6-2 1991 Wimbledon Grass F Stich 6-4 7-6 6-4 1991 ATP finals Carpet RR Becker 7-6 6-3 1992 Hamburg Clay SF Stich 6-1 6-1 1993 Milan Carpet QF Becker 6-2 6-2 1993 Queen's Grass QF Stich 6-4 7-6 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)