Best cyclist of all time, Eddie Merckx did not always pedalled high gear. Footballer in short, the cannibal also finds interest in tennis. A sport he thinks highly of and examines as the high level expert he’s always...

Best cyclist of all time, Eddie Merckx did not always pedalled high gear. Footballer in short, the cannibal also finds interest in tennis. A sport he thinks highly of and examines as the high level expert he’s always been...

What’s your first tennis memory? When I was a kid I practiced several sports (cycling, football, basketball…) and was into a few others. My parents didn’t have the TV and I was following tennis on the radio listening to Luc Varenne (commentator and legend of the RTBF). My first memory is a Davis cup game between the Belgians Jacky Brichant and Philippe Washer’s against the Italian Nicol Pietrangeli (winner of the French internationals of 1959 and 1960). Radio was like travelling in your own mind, because we couldn’t even picture how a big tennis stadium could like, and Luc Varenne was trying his best to. My first memories are really linked to his voice and what it casted…  
When I stopped competing (at the end of 78) I still needed to exercise. I basically just did that since I was five or six, and tennis then seemed ideal.
A persistent legend pretends that you actually played tennis a lot... When I stopped competing (at the end of 78) I still needed to exercise. I basically just did that since I was five or six, and tennis then seemed ideal. I was training with Paul van Himst (famous Belgian football player), Roger de Coster, the several time world champion of motocross and Moltenir (the Italian legendary cycle racing team of which Eddy was part). The end of my career matched the rise of tennis. It wasn’t an aristocratic thing anymore, everyone could access it.   How did it emerge? Tennis courts started to spread everywhere in Belgium and all over Europe. Back in the days, the kids used to go to sports like cycling or football. With the urbanization of Belgium and the development of the modern world of leisure, kids started to get into indoor sports not as physically demanding and more like hobbies. We left a few champions there. Otherwise, at the time, there were also charismatic champions to whom the crowd could identify: Connors, Stan Smith, Orantès, Panatta, Kodès, Nastase, Borg, McEnroe, Gerulaitis… After the Australians of the previous decade, it was like a second golden age.   Did Belgium had a tennis tradition? Our country was always very lively in term of tennis. There wasn’t any big player but there were great facilities and a lot of tournaments to help you improve. Nowadays, it’s kind of the contrary; we have the players but not the tournaments anymore. I’ve been following all this evolution through my son-in-law work, Eduardo Masso (ex-professional, Argentinian naturalized Belgian, former captain of the Davis Cup) who used to work at Mons academy…   Are there similarities between tennis and cycling? It’s not physically comparable. At tennis, what makes the difference at the highest level, is focus. Vitas Gerulaitis, who was exceptionally gifted, could be leading two sets to nil, the demons inside him could still catch him and all the other players knew the game was never over. If you want to make a comparison, that would be the cycling track, where speed and focus is essential. The effort on the road is way longer, sometimes you can switch off (sic) when at tennis in five sets, under the sunshine, don’t even think about it.   Recently, Belgian tennis produced two female stars: Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin – and awaits for the explosion of a third one – Yanina Wickmayer – when men seem to be in a deadlock. How would you explain this? Well, first of all, Justine and Kim are in a class of their own. The fact that they played at the same time and that they were coming from the same country is even more exceptional. Their talent managed to bloom because of the structure of the country, because of their coaches and because of the success that comes with great fates. Then, why girls and not boys… I’m not involved enough to know. The difference between a top 5 player and the fiftieth worldwide must be in the willpower, in the absolute refusal of defeat, in pushing your own limits whatever happens, and in trying to be always competitive at the highest level, year after year…   This explains why for example, Filip Dewulf, semi-finalist at Roland-Garros in 1997, coming through the qualifications, disappeared completely just after his exploit. I wouldn’t know at tennis, but like in cycling, there is shooting stars that come out very high in the game then disappear. There have been world champions in cycling like that, winners of classic cups who never managed to repeat their performance at that level. There are several explanations to it. Filip Dewulf had huge abilities but the competition in tennis is quite unbelievable. There’s also stress, tension, and the ability to question yourself, your performances, your training methods. It’s a cliché, I know, but to get on top for a moment has nothing to do with lasting a long time there…   Yanina Wickmayer, 22 years old, was semi finalist of the US Open in 2009 and since then she seems to have stalled. Will she be an eternal hope that will never make it? I hope not but it’s easy to loose the plot with tennis. You travel all the time, you’re never home and you live in a vacuum. Then there are the injuries, that you just can’t avoid in this sport, where you need to be 100% focused on the sportive aspect. Yanina is very talented but she didn’t prove anything just yet compared to what Justine and Kim already did, they are already icons in the history of the game.   Talking about the history of the game, how do you feel about the Djokovic, Nadal and Federer ? We live such a wonderful time. Who would have thought, a year and half ago, that Novak Djokovic would overtake Nadal and Federer? The Spanish man pulls the quintessence of his abilities and I just love his frame of mind, the way he has to tell other that he will never give up. These days, the tennis is requires as much tactic and technic than intensity. This three come together in excellence. Federer is the greatest champion of all time; he lasts, he holds the record of grand slams ands defeated his curse at Roland-Garros. What else?   Interview led by Rico Rizzitelli