Sampras falls flat against Leconte France ties U.S., 1-1, in Davis Cup final

November 30, 1991|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,Los Angeles Times

LYON, France -- All you need to know about how the first day of the France-U.S. Davis Cup final went yesterday was the final scene:

Henri Leconte sprang into the air like a popped champagne cork and blew kisses.

Pete Sampras stared at the ground and grimly trudged off into a darkened tunnel.

Guess who won.

In his Davis Cup debut, Sampras fell flatter than a bad souffle and lost in straight sets, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, to Leconte, the crafty left-handed veteran of 39 Davis Cup matches and three spinal operations -- back from the dead, according to Yannick Noah, to put on the performance of his life.

"He played the kind of match I was dreaming he would play," said Noah, the French captain.

Leconte's surprisingly routine 2-hour, 24-minute victory over the hottest player on the men's tour gave the French a huge lift and tied the best-of-five-match Davis Cup final, 1-1.

Ken Flach and Robert Seguso will try to give the United States a lead in doubles today against Leconte and Guy Forget.

Asked to assess the situation, U.S. captain Tom Gorman said: "1-1 is where we're at."

No one could argue with that.

This is because in the first match, Andre Agassi dropped the first set to Forget, then free-stroked to a 6-7 (9-7), 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 victory that probably equaled Leconte's in its unexpected ease. Agassi played as if he had a date at the local McDonald's, which he did, because it is the only restaurant in town where he feels comfortable.

Sampras was so ill at ease in his first Davis Cup match, it was nearly painful to watch him. Leconte bothered him by delaying between points, but that was nothing compared to how Sampras was affected by the French crowd.

"First Davis Cup, first match for Pete, Henri just didn't give him an opportunity to breathe, relax, to even think," Noah said. "[Sampras] was nervous the whole way because Henri didn't let him breathe."

It wasn't enough that Sampras played poorly; he also had to endure what was happening in the stands. Among the assorted sound effects were loud, collective foot-stamping, group singing, shouting during waves and even a ringing telephone that somehow was amplified and heard over the public address system.

Take into account that it was Sampras' first match in Davis Cup and that Leconte's serve resembled the fast train from Paris and you can tell what went wrong.

"It was definitely a different feeling," Sampras said. "I don't think I was really settled down.

"There were just a lot of things going on in my mind. So many things I never had in my mind before. I don't know what to say. It was tough. It was a tough experience for me."

Leconte, who had back surgery in July, was a late addition to the French team. Noah chose him, convinced that Leconte had "come back from the dead" to help lead France to its first Davis Cup title in 60 years.

Against Sampras, Leconte came up with great shots at all the right times. He saved five of six break points, served 12 aces, outplayed Sampras at the net, dispensed 34 winners and converted four of the six break points he held.

The manner in which Leconte closed out the match was inspired showmanship. At 30-0, he stamped his feet, prompting the crowd to do the same. He fired an ace down the middle for 40-0 and ran over to Noah, who held up his finger and said, "One more."

At 40-15, Sampras nudged a return wide to end it as Leconte sprang into action. He jumped and then raised his arms. Then he leaped into Noah's arms.

After getting mobbed by his French teammates, who earlier had been so carried away that they participated in the wave, Leconte blew kisses around the court.

"Not only did he play great tennis, but he has a big heart," Noah said.

Agassi's fortunes against Forget depended on a big forehand. A sellout crowd filled the bowl-shaped Palais des Sports, normally the site of cycling races. But after a 1-hour 16-minute first set, Forget's wheels promptly came off.

The problem? Agassi said that Forget sort of wilted from the pressure of playing at home.

Predictably, Forget wasn't buying it. "[Agassi] was the master on the court," Forget said. "It wasn't the pressure. I felt like a windshield wiper going back and forth. My legs were hurting.

"If I were to fight Mike Tyson tomorrow and get hit in the face all the time, it wouldn't be because of the pressure, it would be because he was better."

Agassi proved resilient despite rhythmic clapping and shouts of "For-get, For-get" from the crowd. He didn't mind that he lost the first set. He told Gorman it was the best thing that could have happened.

Agassi's reasoning was that extending Forget in a difficult first set worked to his advantage because Forget got tired.

"Once the set dragged on and we started expending a lot of energy, I thought that favored me," said Agassi, who also believed the pressure of playing three matches is affecting Forget.

"His mind isn't just on this match, it is on the whole weekend," Agassi said. "That's not easy."

After spraying 25 unforced errors in the first set -- five in the tiebreaker -- Agassi had only 16 the last three sets and just seven of those in the final two sets.

"I just couldn't catch him anymore," Forget said.

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