Noah became a national hero in 1983 by winning the French Open. It was the first time a Frenchman had won the Grand Slam event in 37 years, but his seven-year run as the country's top-ranked player ended in 1986, when Leconte dethroned him.
Leconte's game is considerably different from Noah's wide-ranging, athletic style. "When he's playing well, Leconte expends less energy than any other player," says Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, who used to work with Leconte. A great shotmaker, Leconte has the fastest hands and the strongest arm in tennis. "Henri makes shots that don't exist," says Becker. "He can be so amazing, you feel like a ball boy."
Being lefthanded is another advantage, and Leconte is one of the diminishing number of players who adapt well to all surfaces. Though his game is not particularly suited to clay, his 27-4 record on it last year was third-best on the circuit (behind only Ivan Lendl's and Noah's), and he reached the semifinals at the French Open. Later in the summer he made the semifinals at Wimbledon, which, of course, is played on grass, and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, a hard-court event.
But Leconte lacks concentration and self-discipline. He tends to go for winners on every ball, whether he's on the baseline or at the net. The result is either a spectacular shot or one that sails into the fence, the gallery or the next court. He's like a kid with a wild fastball who either blows the pitch by a batter or can't find the plate. "With 90 percent of the players on the tour," says Noah, "you know exactly what they're going to hit and where they'll be. Henri is so unpredictable that the only thing to do is wait for his mistakes."
Leconte is also a court jester who heads loose balls to ball boys soccer-style, redirects disoriented butterflies and mugs for TV cameras, but doesn't bother to stay in shape. "Henri is in the worst physical condition of anyone in the Top 10," says Noah, "and mentally he's not strong enough." Says Becker "He trains for a month like crazy and then goes on holiday for three weeks.' Lately Leconte has been working hard to play himself back into shape following a back injury that sidelined him for two months. He still wasn't 100% when the French Open began on Monday.
According to one French sportswriter, "The French people are still waiting for Leconte to achieve something. He has all the abilities, but to be great you need to have a very solid mental [attitude]." Leconte doesn't seem particularly concerned about others' doubts and criticisms. "If Henri had to quit tomorrow," says another French sportswriter "he would be perfectly content with the little niche he has made for himself."
Leconte acts pretty BCBG (Bon Chic Bon Genre), which is comparable to being preppy. He grew up le petit dernier the baby in a family of four kids in the town of Lillers in northern France. Leconte p�re was an engineer with a metal works company. M�re taught tennis at a country club. Henri practiced by hitting a ball off the garage door. Occasionally a window would break. As punishment, his parents would tell him he couldn' play tennis on the weekend. "I'd play tennis on the weekend anyway," he says with a smirk.
He was an average student and something of a cutup who skipped school and once sprayed the desks in his class with a fire extinguisher. "My parents wanted me to be good in school, but I was only medium," says Leconte. "Some people don't work and don't care. But me, I didn't work and was scared. I always worried the teacher would ask me questions I hadn't studied the answers for."
Leconte qualified for the French Tennis Federation's junior development program when he was 12. He modeled himself after Ilie Nastase, whose spirit he admired. At 16, Leconte quit the federation and enlisted Nastase's countryman, Tiriac, as his manager. In 1981, he was left off the French Davis Cup team but was, by this time, attracting considerable attention. The following year, in his first three months on the French satellite circuit, Leconte won all five tournaments he entered—on four different surfaces. "The federation thought Henri was uncontrollable, crazy," says Tiriac, whose prize pupil in those days was Guillermo Vilas. "They didn't think he could adjust to patterns or systems. But Henri was like a colt who had never been mounted and had to be broken. As long as I could make him work and improve him physically, I could care less if he was crazy."
Tiriac had Leconte train with the indefatigable Vilas, once pitting them against each other eight hours a day for a week. "I wanted to be sure he could take it," says Tiriac. "I overworked him, but I never found a limit. The guy survived, and after that he was a machine." Nevertheless, Tiriac always called the stately, dignified Vilas "the president" and the untamable Leconte "the idiot."