The discreet Charm of Henri Leconte is on full display this perfect Riviera afternoon as he boings around the veranda of his villa on a pogo stick. He's wearing a T-shirt that says JE SENS QUE JE VAIS CRAQUER! ("I feel like I'm about to crack!"), alternately hunching like Rufus T. Firefly and rearing back like the Lone Ranger riding Silver off into the sunset.
The villa around which Leconte pogos is in Mougins, a once rustic, now fashionable hill suburb of Cannes. Leconte's wife, Brigitte, is redecorating the interior entirely in blue and white. ("After it's finished," she says with a laugh, "people who visit must be blue and white.") Surrounded by sprays of blue marguerites, white calla lilies and blue and white amaryllis, Leconte enjoys all the privileges of his rank, which in tennis is first in France and ninth in the world.
He dismounts the pogo stick and settles into a chair at the backyard picnic table. Sipping Mumm champagne from a Smurf glass, the roly-poly, slightly jowly Leconte stabs at a slice of barbecued c�te de boeufburied beneath a glob of b�arnaise sauce. His infant son, Maxim, and collie pup, Lassie, nip at his ankles while his jogging partner, a German shepherd named Hirck, paws at his elbow. "Edolie!" Leconte bellows to his stepdaughter. "Where is my fan letter?"
Edolie, who's eight, is more bemused than cowed. Leconte's bellow is mostly wind, with little bark. She strolls over to a life-sized statue of a black minstrel that resembles a smiling and beseeching Al Jolson. It's a kitschy piece of Americana, the kind of thing you see in the homes of those who have more money than they know what to do with. Edolie produces the letter from a shelf beside the minstrel. Leconte translates from the French:
"Sir: I am a longtime observer of tennis in this country. I have often watched you and Yannick Noah play against players like John McEnroe and Boris Becker. In my opinion, Yannick is a superb athlete and you are a cheap imitation...."
Leconte laughs weakly.
"Yannick is a great entertainer. You are a jerk and an idiot, a fat clown without [courage]. Yannick is still the best and you are jealous of his success."
The letter is signed "A Fan of Noah."
Leconte shrugs and says, "People want us to be rivals all the time. But we're totally different personalities. The only thing we have in common is a French passport." Noah, who lived in Cameroon as a child, is No. 6 on the world charts, yet for some reason French computers rank Leconte No. 1 in France. The two players were once very close. Noah, 27, led Leconte, 23, through the rigidly structured French Tennis Federation like a big brother. They won the French Open doubles title in 1984. But Leconte got married later that year, and their friendship waned. Some believe Brigitte encouraged this distance between them. Leconte had never beaten Noah, and people said he was in awe of his big brother. He beat Noah for the first time six months after the wedding.
Brigitte and Henri met three years ago when she was doing public-relations work for Jacques Chirac, then the mayor of Paris. She is 12 years older than her husband and, according to French gossip, she pretty much runs his affairs off the court. "When your wife is that much older than you, it's obvious who's boss," says Noah. "She doesn't coach tennis, but she coaches everything else in his life."