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Leconte Upsets Sampras To Tie Davis Cup At 1-1

Saturday, November 30, 1991

The chair umpire , s'il vous plait, but the 8,000 peole in the Palais des Sports de Gerland wanted only Henri, Henri, Henri. You can't always get what you want, but the French Davis Cup team got exactly what it needed most and expected least Friday night as Henri Leconte, the No. 159th player in the world trying mightily to come back after his third back operation, ousted No. 6 Pete Sampras in one of the biggest upsets in the history of Davis Cup finals.

Leconte was all balletic volleys, racing, whipping forehands, laser backhands and emotion in his 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 upset of the recent ATP World Championship victor. The result, following Guy Forget's 6-7 (7-9), 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 loss to Andre Agassi, left the underdog French tied at 1-1 with the defending Davis Cup champions going into Saturday's doubles and Sunday's decisive reverse singles.

"It's the greatest day of my life, the win of my career," said Leconte, 28. "I've proved I'm still around."

And he will be Saturday, too. The French team captain, Yannick Noah, announced after Leconte's victory that he would play doubles with Forget against the U.S. veterans Ken Flach and Robert Seguso.

"He played like I dreamed he would," Noah said of Leconte.

This was Sampras's Davis Cup debut, and what a coming out party he had. When the crowd wasn't screaming for Leconte, it was singing "Olé! Olé! Olé!" or waving flags and stamping so forcefully the echoes thundered through the hall when the precious silence finally fell.

"Everytime you step on the court in a foreign country, there's always a risk," Agassi had said Thursday. "You always risk the other person playing beyond what they're capable of because they're pumped."
Leconte, who had surgery for a herniated disk in July, was both pumped and pumping, his fists working à la Jimmy Connors and his elastic face revealing every range of emotion. When he raced to his left and whipped a picture-perfect and untouchable forehand crosscourt at 3-3 in the third set, he was pumping and Noah simply clasped a hand over his mouth in disbelief at what this man he only decided this week to include on the team had wrought.

"I gave it everything I had," Leconte said.

Leconte and Sampras began their match trading service breaks, as Leconte broke to go up, 2-1, Sampras immediately returned the favor, then Leconte did so for 3-2 at love, the coup de grace the first of many crucial forehand passing shots. Leconte held his service in the next game, winding up the last of eight straight points he won, and they stayed on serve through the set, which Leconte closed out when a Sampras passing attempt was long.

By now, the crowd was into the match the way only a Davis Cup crowd can be. The flags were waving, out came a banner imploring "U.S. go home, France reste et gagne," or stay and win.

"Davis Cup," said Noah later, "has nothing to do with anything else."

The key to the second set was Leconte's break of Sampras's serve to go up, 6-5, accomplished when Sampras dumped a backhand into the net. From there, Leconte served out the set coolly at love.

The third set opened with both players showing nerves of steel. But at 4-4, Sampras slipped into a 30-40 hole and tried to pull out with a good first serve, deposited at Leconte's feet. But Leconte walloped a huge return and Sampras backhanded it into the net for the break that allowed Leconte to merely serve out the match and then leap into Noah's waiting arms.

"It's not only about hitting some balls," Noah said of the atmosphere and pressure in a Davis Cup final. "It's about having a big heart. I'm proud of what he did."

Earlier, it had appeared as if Agassi, ranked No. 10, might be in trouble against No. 7 Forget. Agassi's first serve was nowhere to be found in the first set and his cannon of a forehand was having serious directional problems when launched crosscourt.

Agassi broke Forget easily enough in the first game then held serve, but Forget broke back and before you could say unforced error, it was 4-3, Forget.

"The idea is to get as many sets out of the way as quickly as possible," Agassi said later when asked if he had been worried. "But when we switched sides and he broke back to go up 4-3, I said to Tom, 'That's the best thing that can happen.' "

The thinking, Agassi said, was that Forget would get worn out as well as distracted, thinking about his doubles match Saturday.

But Forget hung in for the first set, which went to a tiebreaker after Agassi held serve for 6-6, Forget failing to convert two set points. The tiebreaker seesawed, with Forget prolonging the matter when he failed to put it away at 6-5 and 7-6. He finally came through when Agassi backhanded long a topspin offering by Forget.

The second set had Agassi breaking Forget in the second game then holding for 3-0 and never looking back. In the final game of the second set and opening of the third, Agassi won 10 straight points and the result seemed all too clear.

"The first set was very draining physically and emotionally," said Agassi. "I think he got a little more tired than me."


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