Wimbledon 1997: Winner who lost his way

Andrew Longmore tracks down the champion in his homeland as the rebuilding work continues
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The morning after the Wimbledon final last year, a cartoon in a national newspaper depicted two schoolboy tennis players. They were discussing which of their idols they would imitate. "Tell you what," one was saying to the other. "You be what's-'is-name who lost and I'll be, you know, what's-'is-name who won." Richard Krajicek, the what's-'is-name who won, found that very funny, which says much about the Wimbledon champion's self-deprecating sense of humour.

A recent visit to the Wimbledon Museum by his girlfriend Daphne Dekkers confirmed the feeling that Krajicek's sweep to victory in a topsy-turvy tournament has been designated a fluke. "They had posters of all the old champions, you know, but none of the present one," Krajicek laughed. "She was a little disappointed." A poster of Dekkers herself might have been more appropriate, given that her doe-eyed presence in the players' box launched a thousand summer love pictures.

But, still, tomorrow at the appointed hour, Krajicek will hoist his bag on to his powerful shoulders, duck the head of his 6ft 5in frame through the wooden door of the locker-room and amble past the gold lettering on the dark green noticeboard which indelibly marks out the champions. He will probably sneak a look just to make sure his name has not been left off altogether or misspelt as Sampras's once was. Self-doubt, the devastating flip side of self- effacement, has not stopped bullying Krajicek just because he has become a champion. Having spent a tortuous youth in fear of failure, he has found success a difficult companion too.

But then we should have guessed. A sensitive mind has always been in cruel conflict with an imposingly athletic frame as if its maker had to balance the virtues. Flickering confidence in harness with booming serve. Krajicek is all too ready to do himself down, which makes him an appealing man but an all too vulnerable champion. His favourite book is Nothing Special by the American Zen philosopher, Charlotte Joho Beck, and even at the most fulfilling moment of his young career, when he was cavorting about the centre court grass in triumph, a strange thought flashed through his mind. Maybe the scoreboard had been wrong. Maybe he was making a fool of himself.

Krajicek's first coach, Stan Francker, a jovial man who spotted the talent and tolerated much in honour of it, famously said that only one person could ever beat Richard and that was Richard himself. The battle still rages. Take as a prize exhibit this piece of mental infighting, from his third-round match against Brett Steven 12 months ago. Krajicek has won the first set, served for the second at 5-4, lost his serve and then the subsequent tie-break. "Then I started to talk to myself all the time. And it was all negative. I was going on holiday after the tournament and so I was thinking, OK, if I lose I can go on holiday. Then at about 1- 1 or maybe 2-2 in the third set I said to myself, 'Yes, if you lose you can go on holiday, but just shut up because this is ridiculous.' I didn't want to go on holiday with this sort of feeling. And after that I just sort of chilled out and I won the next two sets quite comfortably."

And the 12 after that, including all three against the defending champion, Pete Sampras. Ten days later, he was able to take his holiday - in a little village in Austria - as the first Dutch Wimbledon champion. The Dutch wanted to fete their champion at once. Krajicek took to the hills and when he did return two months later to head the celebrations in his home town of The Hague he rejected the idea of riding through town in an open- topped horsedrawn carriage. "Not quite my style," he murmured. Instead, he organised a coaching clinic for underprivileged children, was so taken with their enthusiasm and talent he launched his own scheme, "Wimbledon on the Streets", a backstreet tennis tournament borrowed from Arthur Ashe's New York project, and set up his own foundation to provide sports facilities in downtrodden areas. Typically, he chastises himself for not locating his social conscience earlier.

"You don't have to be a Wimbledon champion to do it, everyone does their bit in the community. You wake up as Wimbledon champion, you still feel the same. You're no better than anyone else. I don't have special powers or anything."

Those who thought that a new, more mature, Krajicek would emerge from his first Grand Slam title were sorely disappointed. At least, on court. Far from taking the next step up, Krajicek followed his two weeks in a little Austrian village with a six-month sabbatical. His reaction to being Wimbledon champion was not joy but soul-cleansing relief.

"I thought, 'So my career is not such a waste of time, after all.' I was pleased because I would no longer have to give an interview at the age of 30 and still be saying 'You know, I really would like to win a grand slam.' I began to think that I would never win one and that got to me. That's why it was such a big chip off my shoulder to win Wimbledon." He went to the US Open where Nike, his main sponsors, had promoted a nationwide advertising campaign and lost in the first round. The subway posters were hastily torn down.

"I couldn't really see the point of playing any more," Krajicek said. "I had won Wimbledon. What else was there to do?" Rohan Goetzke, his long- time coach, a tough and amiable Australian, was driven to distraction. "I came close to quitting because you can talk as much as you like, you can talk to the Pope, but it has to come from the player and there was nothing there. The plug just went out of the bath and we didn't just lose half the water, we lost the lot."

A knee operation at the end of the year proved almost a blessing. Krajicek recovered his motivation enough to win two tournaments and began to feel better. "I tried to fool myself really," he said. "I said to myself there are 10 more Wimbledons to win, a US Open, Australian, French, you've never been world No 1, never been in the world top five. But you have to feel these things from inside, you have to want to fight."

Krajicek's deep waters flow from a familiar source. Not only schoolgirl tennis prodigies suffer from broken homes and domineering fathers. Legend has it that Petr Krajicek, a Czech-born engineer, used to drive his three- year-old son to tears by forcing him to hit tennis balls hour after hour. Petr has returned to The Hague, where Richard was brought up, and though contact between the two has been renewed, the relationship is suspicious at best. "The only way I can reach my son is by remote control on the TV," Petr said in a recent newspaper article.

In reality, Cees van Veen, a Dutch businessman who lent young Krajicek two credit cards and told him to give them back when he was successful, has been more of a father. Cees was at Wimbledon last year and Krajicek's mother Ludmilla; Petr was not. Only recently, on Dutch television, has Krajicek talked openly about his family background. "Richard always wants to do things right," Goetzke said. "It's been one of his problems with grass, accepting the frustrations." Krajicek accepts the point. "All my life I've been taught not to miss. I still feel it but in matches I can cut away and concentrate on winning."

Not always. In Paris last month, Krajicek returned to petulant old habits. He gave up, then ran away, refusing to give a press conference. "They [the journalists] all saw it. It needed no explanation from me," Krajicek said. "I could only make it worse by saying something stupid." The memory of his "lazy fat pigs" outburst against the women's game still lingers. But Krajicek, who has an intricate relationship with his own press, was heavily criticised. "He will never be a real champion," one of the journalists said last week. Only a Wimbledon champion.

None of the complications has altered his plans to move back to Holland from Monte Carlo, into a converted old vicarage outside Amsterdam, nor stopped talk of "settling down", at the age of 25, to small-town life with Daphne. In the Heineken Trophy at Rosmalen last week, Krajicek betrayed no visible symptoms of advanced paranoia as his 2pm appointment on centre court loomed larger. He handled his many media commitments with natural charm, hosted a coaching clinic with 150 children wearing golden cardboard "King Richard" crowns and played with an awesome, casual, authority in disposing of his compatriot, Paul Haarhuis, in the first round. Like a large windmill cranking up, he served 18 aces, but his returns were sharp too.

"He has got over that mental block about grass," Goetzke said. "He had to accept how frustrating it is and he's done that now. He's also said he's positive about defending his title, which is good to hear because a few months ago I wasn't sure about that." A change from last year when he only decided to come at the eleventh hour, so low was his confidence.

This year is equally critical but for different reasons. His section of the draw is wide open, though a prospective meeting with Tim Henman in the last 16 would be a test of character. "If I win again, I will know what to expect. There will be no relief, just happiness." And a poster of his own for what's-'is-name in the Wimbledon Museum.