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Lingua Franca

Retired Enqvist facing a foe far tougher than Sampras

Posted: Thursday November 30, 2006 2:31PM; Updated: Thursday November 30, 2006 3:01PM
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During his 16-year career, Sweden's Thomas Enqvist won 19 singles titles and was the runner-up at the 1999 Australian Open.
During his 16-year career, Sweden's Thomas Enqvist won 19 singles titles and was the runner-up at the 1999 Australian Open.
Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT

For Thomas Enqvist, the last four weeks have been more intense and demanding than any since he joined the pro tennis tour in 1991. The 32-year-old Swede, winner of 19 singles titles and runner-up at the '99 Australian Open, has been drilling in fundamentals eight hours a day.

Enqvist just completed a French immersion program that at times reduced him to stammering, tongue-tied impotence. He polished his pronouns and flexed his past participles at the Institut de Français, a luxurious villa overlooking the Mediterranean on the Cote d'Azur.

"For a solid month it was French, French, French," says Enqvist, whose wit is drier than a fine Sancerre. "I felt like I was playing in Key Biscayne on a windy day when I'm not in shape."

Until he retired from the tour in April, the straight-talking, flat-hitting Enqvist was almost always in shape. You have to be to finish in the top 10 four times and win at least one ATP title for six consecutive years.

He signed up for classes in deference to his fiance, Carine Demaria, a native of nearby Aix-en-Provence. They met seven years ago in Monaco, where they now share a home. They're expecting their first child in February.

"On the tour, everyone speaks English," says Enqvist. "I always told Carine that after I finished my career, I would learn her language. She's been very encouraging."

Incoming students at the Institut de Français are tested in speaking ability and listening comprehension, then placed in appropriate groups of no more than 10 students. Enqvist, a novice, was put in the "debutante" class. "No," he says, "I didn't have to wear a ball gown."

Only French was allowed -- anyone caught speaking another language risked a fine from the cook as well as a croissant to the ear. The kitty went toward champagne and French Provencal hors d'oeuvres on graduation day.

Before he enrolled, many of the French words Enqvist knew were unsuitable for a family Web site. "They were not words a student could say to a professor's face," he allows.

So what's his favorite French word now? "Bouillabaisse," he cracks.

Invariably, the most grueling part of Enqvist's day unfolded in the language laboratoire -- known to the mutinous as l'abattoir. By the end of the four weeks, he was expected to slip direct and indirect pronouns into passé compose (past tense) and negative sentence structures.

Lab work, he says, required the patience of a clay-court specialist. "It was difficult," he recalls, "but it was also difficult to return the serves of Pete Sampras." For the record, Sampras beat Enqvist nine times in 11 matches.

Ultimately, French grammar proved more intricate than French vocabulary. "In French, you can have the exception to the exception," Enqvist says. "That reminded me of Pete Sampras, too."

How so?

"Pete was an exceptional player."