Tennis Wimbledon: Krajicek has confidence to walk tall

AS HE was about to serve at match point yesterday Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, heard an aeroplane overhead and backed off. He was probably afraid he might hit it with the rim of his racket.

When it comes to physical advantages for his sport there are few as generously blessed as the Dutchman. The 14st of his body is wrapped in a 6ft 5in frame, dimensions built to damage. Todd Woodbridge was in the shy yesterday and he failed to lay a racket on 18 Krajicek services, which took the latter's total to 38 for the tournament. Some of these projectiles reached 133mph and it made you realise that the tennis balls used must have been very wicked indeed in a past life to deserve this.

Woodbridge himself is not a man you would want to nudge while he had a pint in his hand but, as he crouched to receive serve yesterday, he looked like a fieldmouse in the path of a combine harvester. By the end the Australian had the slightly distracted look of a man wandering around the trenches. He left with the sound of service reports ringing in his ears, the victim of a 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 scoreline.

At the outset, there were plentiful spare places in the crowd on Court No 2 because while you can admire Krajicek it is not that easy to be entertained by him. His powerful gifts make the rally obsolete. He is one of the handful of men who have made the game largely redundant as a spectacle on grass. He is almost too efficient.

At the other end of the pitch was Woodbridge, who has always been a couple of gun turrets short of the battleship you need to be successful in singles around these parts. It is another format of the game, though, in which the man has made his name. Todd, of course, is one of the Woodies, the doubles team which has won five consecutive titles here. When Woodbridge is on court, Mark Woodforde is usually within his whispering distance. Yesterday it was a bit like watching Emu out there without Rod Hull.

It was certainly not the easiest of assignments for whenever he managed to return service he would see a huge shadow bearing down on him. Krajicek fills the space at the net like a bouncer in a nightclub doorway. It is territory in which the Dutchman is feeling particularly at ease.

"I feel more comfortable at the net and I miss very few volleys," he said. "I feel sharp and if I have a good preparation then I feel it's very tough to pass me and I get a lot of confidence at the net. I feel taller."

Krajicek looks better because he feels better. His meringue kneecaps no longer bring him pain following surgery, and there has been no recurrence either of the back spasms which almost forced him out of the game several years ago. Winning Wimbledon three years ago was too much for Richard Krajicek and subsequent defeat in the first round of the US Open, followed by other bleak results, darkened an already suspect temperament.

That gloomy character is hard to recognise these days. Krajicek marries his girlfriend, Daphne Deckers, next month and is close to being sickeningly happy. He is tickled most by his 15-month-old daughter Emma's recent smiling recognition of her father on television.

Krajicek has already beaten Pete Sampras both here and this season, in the Lipton, and is one of the few men who can be held up against the American as a creditable alternative. Prior to Wimbledon, Krajicek's form was not outstanding, but the pacing of his improvement is seductive. "The confidence is there and I don't have to play my best tennis at the beginning," he said. "You don't want to peak too early and at least I don't have to worry about that the way I'm playing at the moment."

Krajicek then continued to tell us that he is some way short of championship- winning form and while it is a story he delivers well, it comes from an ambassador sent abroad to be less than candid about his prospects. Privately, Krajicek believes he has quite a chance this year. He also believes he is building towards the best tennis of his life. The peak may be reached a week on Sunday.