The most unpredictable turnaround of tennis history happened at the 1986 French open of Roland Garros. It involved the most whimsical French player at the time, a rough Brazilian, a smart coach, a pregnant actor’s...

The most unpredictable turnaround of tennis history happened at the 1986 French open of Roland Garros. It involved the most whimsical French player at the time, a rough Brazilian, a smart coach, a pregnant actor’s wife, a zealous ball boy and a blind referee. This is the story of a rather unusual game for those who lived it.

« Hello, Henri! I would like to talk to you about your victory against Cassio Motta at Roland Garros in 1986, do you remember it? » At the end of the line, Henri Leconte, aka Riton, is wry. « If I remember it ? Oh well, a little! ». That year, the left-handed man would reach the semi-finales of the Porte d’Auteuil tournament, only loosing to the Swedish newcomer Mikael Pernfors (2/6, 7/5, 7/6, 6/3). But it’s definitely this game against Cassio Motta that stuck in everyone’s memories. Why? Because the pitch of this game happens to be the most epic twist of tennis history, and involved was one of the most atypical player of the 80’s ATP circuit. The only one to who this kind of thing could happen, if you listen to his then coach Patrice Dominguez « He was a player a bit amnesic, able to go from laugh to tears in the wink of an eye. This instability managed to help him get out of hopeless situation. He just needed a little push, a successful hit, to completely forget everything he messed up before and start playing top tennis again. »  

An invitation card

So, Roland Garros, 1986, third round of the French open. The central court is filled to watch the match between Henri Leconte, then in the top 10 worldwide, and the Brazilian Cassio Matta, a player known to be tough, but not invincible. « Henri entered this game in great shape, it was supposed to be an easy win. » says Patrice Dominguez, who was attending the game from a box at the bottom of the court, under the VIP stand. But for the blues, optimism was quickly replaced by concerns: Riton left hand, normally so wonderful, was an absolute mess. « It was horrible, he recalls, the balls were going right to the tarpaulins, I couldn’t do anything right, I was lost in the court, frustrated, so frustrated… » 6/1 for the Brazilian in the first set, 6/3 in the second, the Frenchman defeat’s seemed inevitable. Dominguez was watching it, powerless:
I was distraught, I felt I already said everything I could, but it seemed hopeless, Henri had his head and shoulders down, he was taking the hits of Motta, who you have to admit, was playing well above his usual level.
Determined to establish a contact at all costs with him (« He always needed love, needed to be supported »), the coach who since became consultant had an idea « out of sheer desperation, to scrawl a cheering note on an invitation ».  

Michel Leeb’s wife

Written on it: « We’re with you, we trust you, calm down. Prepare your moves more carefully, and above all things, play your game at the net. Kisses. » A message that then needed to be passed on a way or another to his little protégé, thing which is, obviously, completely forbidden. Dominguez continues: « On my left was a woman, pregnant, and who happened to be the wife of the actor Michel Leeb. I asked her if she could help out and accepted. She took the note and gave it to the nearest ball boy who then had to pass it on to Henri». In front of a well accommodating referee, the player received the note at the change of side, when the score was 6/6 in the third set. Dominguez: « He took the note, looked surprised, read it, and made an eye contact with me that meant « you could have said it earlier you twat! » and he stormed back to the court, transformed. Classic Leconte! Henri confirms: « As weird as can be, this little note helped me to turn all my frustration into anger. I regained the upper hand and played as a steamroller, literally taking Motta to the throat ». Result? Riton the madman got back his amazing offensive game, went full on on the balls as if his life was on the line, before winning twelve games in a row for a victory 1/6 3/6 7/6 6/0 6/0. He’s still laughing about it: « Yeah it’s true, I stuck him two bagels at the end! »   By Régis Delanoë