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Leconte backs Scot to return to former glory

THE term back to the future has a resonance when considering Henri Leconte.

Henri Leconte's greatest achievement was his win over Pete Sampras that helped France to win the Davis Cup, and he achieved it after having had surgery on his back.

The Frenchman rivals Doc Brown for his sheer eccentricity though the tennis player is more apt to look to the future than travel into the past. His reflections on his personal history, though, do have wider lessons.

Leconte is preparing to travel to Edinburgh in June to take part in the Brodies Champions of Tennis event. At 50, this expedition involves more work that booking a flight. "I have a training programme that I adhere to every day. I want to be fit, to move and to be competitive," he says. "The trouble is that I look at a cake and I put on 2lb."

Leconte, a left-hander of sublime skills and once turbulent temperament, has, of course, faced bigger challenges and overcome them. His singles career may have reached its zenith in terms of grand slams with a loss to Mats Wilander in the 1988 French Open in front of a crowd craving a home victory, His greatest day, though, came in November 1991 in Lyons when he defeated Pete Sampras in straight sets en route to helping France win the Davis Cup.

"'It was my finest match, the biggest occasion, and it came after I had back surgery too. It meant so much that I was back and able to win at the highest level," says the Frenchman who won nine titles in his career and reached No.5 in the world.

His experience of coming back from back surgery may be of interest to those who worry about whether Andy Murray can return to former glory after a similar operation. "The short answer is I believe he can and will. But it takes time, it takes patience," says Leconte. "You sometimes just have to wait, to trust. It is not like a car with an engine, You can not just fire it up and the engine will come on as normal. There are adjustments to be made on the serve, how you move, how you hit a shot."

Leconte believes that his rehabilitation was a process that continued longer than he had anticipated. "I came back quickly and won matches and my greatest triumph was after I had surgery. But I was also tentative at times, not sure how to move or how much strength to put on a shot.

"The biggest difficulty, of course, is that when you are out for a time then grand slams can become very tough tests. You can be fit and able to stretch and move for three or four matches but the strength may not be there to challenge at the very end."

He believes that the ability to endure has a special significance in the French Open.

Leconte, who reached the semi-finals three times at Roland Garros and won the doubles title in 1984 with Yannick Noah, knows how to play on clay and the demands it makes on both body and mind. "It is the surface that drains you the most," he says. "It is not just that rallies can go on longer but the shot selection must be precise and the movement must be good with that special slide into a shot. Players who have not grown up on the surface or do not play on it regularly find it difficult to adapt."

Does Murray fall into this category? "Andy has won a grand slam on hard court and on grass so he is a top player but he will be seeking to make his mark on clay and it is a surface that can change with the weather and make extraordinary demands on the body. He has been to a semi-final so you cannot rule him out."

Rafael Nadal, who has eight French Open titles, will be the obvious favourite but Leconte pauses before anointing the Spaniard the greatest of all time. "I believe you have to remember Bjorn Borg," he says of the Swede who won six French Opens but complemented them with five Wimbledon titles. "That was an extraordinary feat," says Leconte. "To move from the clay of Roland Garros to a Wimbledon surface that was much quicker than that of today and to be so dominant on both was the mark of the truly exceptional."

He will not be drawn on comparisons between the modern era and his own in terms of quality, though he points out that he played against such as Borg, Sampras and John McEnroe. But he admires the players of the modern era for both their commitment and envies their access to the best fitness regimes.

He feels the most interesting tennis question of 2014 may concern the Big Four. Murray, at 26, Nadal, 27, and Novak Djokovic, 26, have all suffered injuries lately and Roger Federer, at 32, may be nearing the end. "It may just be the moment when others come though. [Stanislas] Wawrinka won the Australian and is a very good player, [Grigor] Dimitrov has the talent and I would like Jo-Wilfried [Tsonga] to get back to full fitness and see if he can break through at the very top," he says.

He is both optimistic about his trip to Edinburgh and the wider world of tennis. Of the former he says with a chuckle: "I will beat everyone." Of the latter, he says: "I would change nothing about the modern game. Okay, maybe just bring back some of that little bit of personality from the past." Back to the future, perhaps, with the spirit of Leconte in a starring role.

n Tickets for Brodies Champions of Tennis on June19-22 at Edinburgh Academical are on sale at www.championsoftennis.com

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