Former world #5 Henri Leconte was in good spirits at his office in Luxembourg as he spoke exclusively to me on The Double Bagel Tennis Podcast last week, and of course given the current circumstances, we talked virtually through Zoom. The 56-year-old Frenchman is living “in his second life” right now, as he believes when someone reaches 50, they are entering their second life. We covered many topics such as why reaching the 1988 French Open Final was his highest point and also the lowest point of life, ending France’s 59 year drought of Davis Cup glory in 1991, the future of French tennis, and more.
Make sure to have a listen to the full podcast episode.
The 1988 French Open Final
Leconte reached the final of the Roland Garros in 1988, and eventually losing to Mats Wilander in straight sets. 32 years on, he is still the last Frenchman to be a finalist in the French Open.
“I was not prepared at all for that final and I was emotionally very weak and I was not ready. I should have lost in the semis. Then you have no regrets. Now I have to live with my regrets.”
After the final, the French crowd verbally abused him for losing that match, as Leconte shared that was “the lowest point of my life”. He was surprised by the amount of abuse he received, as he says “[Being French] they should be saying ‘Come on! You can do this.’ But no. They were booing me.”
“After I lost that match in final, I couldn’t go outside even to buy a French Baguette. They just booing me all the time and telling me I lost and [calling me] a piece of […] . I had to go outside of France.”
Winning the 1991 Davis Cup
Leconte was fortunate to be part of alongside the 1991 Davis Cup winning team with legendary teammates like Yannick Noah and Guy Forget. The trio in 1991, as underdogs, ended France’s 59 drought of Davis Cup glory by beating the USA who had the likes of Sampras and Agassi playing in the team.
“The three of us (Leconte, Forget, Noah), we put ego on the side. We had a big discussion and we wanted to win Davis Cup.”
Leconte recalls the moment that by winning the Davis Cup, he went from zero to hero. The loss from the 1989 Roland Garros was now forgotten and he was forgiven by the French public as he hoisted the Davis Cup in front of the general public.
“The Americans came with players like Agassi, Sampras. They said “we are gonna win so easy – they have no team”. And they lost. And they did celebrate during Thanksgiving before the event. They celebrated with their rings- the special Davis Cup rings, they celebrated on Wednesday night. And they had to give it back, because they lost on Sunday.”
Since retirement, Leconte has remained active in the tennis world. He now predominantly commentates for Eurosport during the Majors and has a trademark catchphrase of “Unbelievable!” after intense rallies.
“When I stopped in 1995, I was straight away working with TV. That was something I already prepared.”
He recalls the experience of his first time sitting in a commentary booth for a match, and discusses what he has learnt from doing commentary, and his philosophy of what makes a good commentator.
“I was a little bit nervous. I was trying to do a bit like everyone else, and that was a big mistake. Just be yourself and enjoy it. When I do the commentary for different matches, I do the same when I’m watching at home when you go like “Unbelievable Shot!””
“You have to react, you have to give your soul and your thought about what’s going on during the match. It’s also important to not talk too much, this is what you learn.”
The Future of French Tennis
For the past 20 years, French have had a good crop of tennis players with the likes of Tsonga, Monfils, and Simon. However, Leconte feels that there is something missing in the next generation of French players that will make them rise to the top. He feels the next generation lack, perhaps ambition and are happy to be top 50 or top 100 and make a living, and are not willing to go the extra step to win a Grand Slam.
“We have been very lucky to have a good generation [of French players]. In a few years unfortunately, it won’t be the same anymore… I have been sometimes very rude [to the younger generation of French players] because I don’t think they do the right thing or the best to win a Grand Slam tournament-especially the French… I don’t think they have the ambition to win a Grand Slam.”
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