The secret of the Lapenttis' success

Letter from quito, ecuador

Images of an overjoyed Giovanni Lapentti raising his racket in victory covered the front pages and television screens in Ecuador following the tiny Andean nation's Davis Cup victory over Great Britain at Wimbledon earlier last Sunday. But it was the spectacle of hero-worshipping fans overwhelming their new champion as he returned home that will linger in the minds of most people.

Images of an overjoyed Giovanni Lapentti raising his racket in victory covered the front pages and television screens in Ecuador following the tiny Andean nation's Davis Cup victory over Great Britain at Wimbledon earlier last Sunday. But it was the spectacle of hero-worshipping fans overwhelming their new champion as he returned home that will linger in the minds of most people.

Interest levels in tennis have surged here following the victory which took Ecuador back to the World Group of the Davis Cup after 15 years' absence and the Lapentti brothers, Giovanni and Nicolas, have earned themselves major celebrity status. At a recent charity function, the shirt Giovanni wore when beating Arvind Parmar at Wimbledon was auctioned off for $4,000 (£2,685).

Giovanni, at 17 years of age the younger of the two, was ranked only 959th in the world, compared to his 23-year-old brother's ranking of No 18. That their triumph came on grass, and not on clay, the most commonly found South American playing surface, made the success all the more remarkable. There is only one grass court in the whole of Ecuador, and Giovanni had only a month's experience of playingon grass before his victory atWimbledon.

Hundreds of fans swarmed outside the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador's principal seaport, to welcome home the Wimbledon winners. At the same time, on all the principal avenues of Guayaquil, Quito and far beyond, cars were forming convoys and honking their horns in celebration.

At a packed press conference at the airport, Giovanni told reporters how, when he was two sets down to Arvind Parmar, he "suddenly felt lit up by something indescribable" and began to play with a patience and cool-headed mentality, that he had never before experienced.

"I still cannot believe it. I keep seeing mental images of that game and I cannot define what went through my head. I completed my dream of playing with Nico in the Davis Cup. To start out with atriumph is very important. What I am feeling is indescribable," he said.

Raul Viver, the captain of the Ecuadorian team, said that the victory at Wimbledon was a dream come true. "I have found the ideal doubles team to play Davis Cup: the Lapentti brothers are the present and the future of Ecuadorian tennis," he said. The mayor of Guayaquil, Leon Febres Cordero, said the Lapentti brothers were an example to youth and "have let the world know that Ecuador is a land of champions".

In the aftermath of the victory, Giovanni has spoken of how the enormity of his achievement in beating Parmar is only just beginning to sink in. "The emotion and happiness I feel, which I share with the whole country, is immense," he said. "What I feel is really indescribable... the most moving thing that has happened to me in my whole life is to play for my country and defend it as I did."

As youngsters, the Lapentti brothers began playing tennis in the grounds of the Guayaquil Club, where their father played basketball. Their first great coach was Andres Gomez, a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 1984 and winner of the 1990 French Open, where he defeated Andre Agassi. At 40, he still is a formidable player on the senior circuit, but is considered a clay-court specialist.

Yet the Lapenttis' victory at Wimbledon cannot be considered a complete fluke. As well as Gomez, Ecuadorian tennis has produced other great champions, notably Pancho "Sneaky" Segura in the 1950s.

Victor Hugo Araujo, a leading Ecuadorian sports writer, says that the potential shown by the Lapenttis confirms that individual sport in his country is far stronger than team games. He cites Jefferson Perez, the Olympic gold medal winning runner, and a host of others South American champions in everything from swimming to chess to prove his point. The secret? Long-term planning and investment in young athletes from an early age, the sort of priorities recently recommended by TimHenman to turn around Britain'sélitist game.

Ecuador is also consumed by football fever as the national side prepares for vital World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Argentina, but as Giovanni Lapentti declared with satisfaction: "Football is the No 1 sport of Ecuador, with the biggest following. But it is tennis, athletics, and swimming that have scored the most victories for our country."

"Some people are comparing it to Andres Gomez winning Roland Garros in 1990", said Nicolas Lapentti. "It was a very long weekend, and it's tough to watch your little brother being down 0-2 [in sets] in the decisive match. It's completely different from watching a team-mate. After I lost to Tim Henman, I told Giovanni that he was in a situation that a lot of players want to be in and that he should just enjoy it. After the match he said that he'd seen how disappointed I was after losing, and he wanted to win the fifth match for me."

They are sentiments which are not likely to be forgotten by his fellow countrymen in Ecuador for a long time.

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