Lapentti laps up high life

Ronald Atkin meets the young ace of Ecuador making his world championship bow

Suddenly for Nicolas Lapentti, the ostentation of a swish Paris hotel, just off the Rue de Rivoli, is the norm. Having leapt from 92nd to eighth in the world rankings in the space of 11 months, the 23-year-old Ecuadorean has qualified for a debut at this week's ATP Tour world championships in Hanover. Welcome to the five-star world, el niño from Guayaquil.

Suddenly for Nicolas Lapentti, the ostentation of a swish Paris hotel, just off the Rue de Rivoli, is the norm. Having leapt from 92nd to eighth in the world rankings in the space of 11 months, the 23-year-old Ecuadorean has qualified for a debut at this week's ATP Tour world championships in Hanover. Welcome to the five-star world, el niño from Guayaquil.

Since Ecuador is too far removed from the climax to the tennis season, Lapentti spent the past few days honing his game at the Roland Garros indoor facilities. Also, he concedes with a small smile as we converse in deep-carpeted, high-chandeliered splendour, he is enjoying himself. "It's a beautiful city, Paris," says the handsome, dark-haired six-footer who knows about things beautiful, having achieved the high-water mark in his sport by dating Anna Kournikova.

This has been a historic season for South America, with three men reaching the top 10 (Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil is third and Chile's Marcelo Rios ninth) for the first time since the ranking system was instituted in 1973.

Brazil and Chile are nations with other sporting distinctions but what Lapentti's emergence means to Ecuador, a nation of 13 million, was demonstrated at the Paris Open earlier this month. At the press conference following his semi-final loss to Andre Agassi, Lapentti's every comment was repeated into a mobile phone by a radio reporter to his station back in the capital, Quito.

"Right now, Nicolas is the most popular athlete in the country," said Andres Gomez, who knows a bit about Ecuador's thirst for success. When he won the French Open in 1990 and got to world No 4, Gomez was given a ticker-tape parade and went on to a party that lasted a week. Pancho Segura, the bandy-legged genius from Jack Kramer's tennis pro circus, Gomez, and the 20km walk gold medallist at the 1996 Olympics, Jefferson Perez; that was the sum total of Ecuador's sports giants until Lapentti. Their highlight as a nation remains a Davis Cup victory over the United States in 1967.

Gomez is related to the Lapentti family, being a distant cousin of Nicolas' mother, Maria-Cecilia. He has been a huge factor in the development of the youngster and, at the age of 39, is his Davis Cup doubles partner. But it was Lapentti's father, also called Nicolas, who set his son on the path, taking him to the beach as a small child to play ball with solid wood paddles. "By the time I was four I was already good and when I went to tennis for the first time at six I had the rudiments." Since tennis still tends to be sniffed at as elitist in Ecuador, where there are no public courts, Lapentti was fortunate that his father, a former national basketball player and now a politician, could afford membership for his family of five children at the Guayaquil tennis club, the place which produced Segura and Gomez.

Lapentti, a descendant of Italian immigrants called La Penta whose name was changed by his grandfather, had an outstanding junior career, culminating in victory at the Orange Bowl of 1994. Transition to the professional circuit can prove a chasm, as many in Britain will testify, but Lapentti appeared to have completed an effortless vault when, in 1995, he moved straight from winning seven out of eight events on satellite tours in Ecuador and Colombia to qualify for, and win, the ATP tournament in Bogota aged 19.

Lapentti looks back on Bogota as an unfortunate landmark. "I thought 'Oh, it's that easy is it? I don't have to work too hard because I have everything.' It took me a while to realise I needed to be more professional." Though another tournament victory eluded him, Lapentti moved into the top 100 in 1997. But by the end of last year he had slumped from a high of 55 down to 92. The local media proceeded to write him off and Lapentti thought they might be right. "They said I was maybe just another ATP Tour player. I thought: 'Nothing is happening. I am in the top 100 but I want more than that.'" On the advice of his Chilean coach, Patricio Rodriguez, Lapentti hired a fitness trainer, Carlos Aranda,and spent the Christmas period working with him.

It was a sacrifice which paid off spectacularly. Never having previously gone beyond the second round of a Grand Slam, Nicolas won successive five-set matches against three Swedes at the Australian Open and marched to the semi-finals before being brought down by another Swede, Thomas Enqvist. The 27 sets of singles and eight sets of doubles he played with Kuerten swept away any doubts over ability and durability. Having kept close to his chest the ambition to mark 1999 with a place in the top 20, Lapentti found himself inside the leading 40 after one tournament and he has been building impressively from there.

Four years after that Bogota success, the kid reared on clay won the Indianapolis hard-court title in August, then set off for the indoor season in Europe. He arrived with an indoor career record of no wins and nine losses but in the Grand Slam Cup defeated Fernando Meligeni in a 16-14 third set, the longest in pro tennis this year. Then he beat Lleyton Hewitt to win the Lyon crown and crashed the top 10 with that semi-final in Paris and the quarters in Stockholm. He has gathered more than £1m in prize money this year, won 58 of his 79 singles matches and lost in the first round once. The leap of 84 places into the top 10 is a one-year achievement second only to Agassi's rise from 122 to sixth in 1998.

His 13 indoor victories this autumn, many of them over specialists on that surface, have further boosted the confidence of a sturdy-legged athlete with the perfect physique for tennis, who has blossomed beyond recognition.

Agassi, who beat him in Paris with much difficulty, paid tribute to Lapentti's "wheels". "That's how I learned on clay, running a lot," said Nicolas, fingering the diamond stud in his left ear. "I don't have the same game as Agassi but if he has to run as much as me he will get tired, for sure." Right now, after two solid months in Europe, it is Lapentti who is tired, for sure. But before he flies back to the family home in the luxurious Guayaquil suburb of Puntilla for a break, the world championships beckon and Nicolas confesses to a "very strange feeling".

He explains: "When I was a little kid I remember watching it on TV at Madison Square Garden, watching Lendl, who was my particular idol, Becker and Edberg. Playing this tournament was only something I could dream about as a kid, so it will be very special." His impressive command of English faltering for once, Lapentti vowed, "I will fight my heart off," then added, "If you've had a great year you want to finish it well."

Then, of course, there is the 2000 season to relish. "When I was 90 in the world it would have been a bit silly of me to say I wanted to win a Grand Slam. But now, in the top 10, I have the right to say it. That is, for sure, one of my goals and maybe I can finish in the top five." Andres Gomez thinks it could be top three, eclipsing his own mark.

If that happens, Nicolas Lapentti may match the walker, Jefferson Perez, and find his face on an Ecuador postage stamp.