Richard Krajicek... Remembering 1996 Wimbledon
Twenty years ago, there were no holes in Richard Krajicek's game as he lifted the 1996 Wimbledon trophy, a victory that liberated the giant Dutchman from his childhood and clearly defined the person he was and who he wanted to be.
At the only grass-court tournament in continental Europe, the lawns are wet and the tennis balls are low bouncing. A one-time happy hunting ground, Richard Krajicek is far from positive. His spirits, and those of his coach, Rohan Goetzke, have worsened progressively. Narrow wins over Jacco Eltingh and Hendrik Jan Davids precede a 6-4, 7-5 loss to Paul Haarhuis. Goetzke is fuming.
"He put in a shocker," recalls Goetzke, his Australian coach of nearly six years. "He was hitting the ball okay, but he wasn't confident."
"I wasn't motivated to play," admits Krajicek. "During my career, I battled myself as well as my opponent. There were times in practice when my coach would be shaking his head. My attitude was bad, not even that - I wasn't trying, but I was getting too upset. I was too much of a perfectionist."
Goetzke tells Krajicek, "There's nothing wrong with your game. You serve and return well. You're a whinger!
"If you go on holiday, I'm gone. Wimbledon is the biggest tournament of the year. You're going to look back on your career and wonder where it went. Do something!"
A holiday beckons.
"We had planned to go to Austria, for a sporting vacation," remembers his wife, Daphne Deckers, 20 years on. "Richard was always improving with Rohan, although life as a professional tennis player is hugely stressful for all parties."
Krajicek takes time out. But he soon calls Goetzke, ready to work. They head to London. "You can win this," Goetzke tells Krajicek. "You can go a long way. You need to enjoy the process, the ride."
"We decided to train on hard courts, as I always struggled with rhythm," remembers Krajicek. "My game wasn't too much rhythm, but the points were so short that after a couple of days on the grass, I felt I was playing worse and worse. Maybe I was serving and volleying good, but I had no timing. I was reading this article that when Andre Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, he spent hardly any time on grass. It was all hard courts. He just wanted timing. I hit a few times on hard court, only 20 minutes a day, then I kept having a good feeling."
Aged 24, Krajicek has already overcome two knee surgeries and he's also been out of action for five months without going under the knife. "My knee was always a problem," explains Krajicek. "It was part of my body. I was told I was quite strong, but because I was always serve and volleying, and I was tall I had more chance for injury. That was the downside, but the upside was that I was able to play the way I did."
With two first-round losses at The Championships - to decent grass-court players: Darren Cahill in 1994 and to Bryan Shelton in 1995, Krajicek's main goal is to survive round one. Despite being No. 14 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, he isn't among the list of 16 seeds. But No. 2-ranked Thomas Muster is angered by his seeding of seventh and withdraws due to a left thigh muscle injury that he picked up at The Queen's Club. The announcement comes through on 20 June, following the Austrian's 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 loss to Brett Steven at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle. Krajicek moves into Muster's slot. It's three days before The Championships begins.
Krajicek comes up against Steven on the 'graveyard.' Court No. 2.
"He wasn't focused," remembers Stanley Franker, who, at the time was the Dutch Davis Cup captain. "He was trying so hard to lose the match. I remember leaving the court, because it was so frustrating."
"The third round was bad weather, windy and cold," says Krajicek. "I got back in my negativity, in my old ways for the first two sets. I won the first set 7-6(5), then I lost 6-7(5)."
At 1-4 down in the third set, Krajicek is on the edge.
"Then I turned a switch in my head," says Krajicek. "'Okay, let's stop complaining and play,' I told myself. It was probably my most important match for the way I thought."
"I returned to see him re-born," says Franker, who stays to see Krajicek win 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2.
Goetzke recalls, "Afterwards, I asked, 'You okay?'
"He said, 'You don't need to say anything, I'm good'. It was like going back to his younger days..."
Krajicek first met Goetzke aged 16. On a four-week European tour in 1989, they hit it off and Krajicek's game continually developed in his training alongside the likes of Paul Dogger and Eltingh.
"It wasn't immediately apparent that he would make it, like some juniors" says Goetzke. "Richard was competitive and wanted to win, but he got frustrated easily. He learned to be a pro."
"At the age of 10, he didn't have big shots," admits Franker. "But he had a great game. He was a little lazy, but he worked on his attitude and he responded well. He later shot up and was totally uncoordinated. But his body developed. Rohan and Richard were a fantastic match."
"He wanted to win and fight, and he could hang in there," says Goetzke. "But it cost a lot of energy and time. I recall coming down on him once in practice, when he was playing with younger players, prior to going to the 1991 Stuttgart Indoors. I told him to 'go back and apologise, otherwise we're done.' It was a rollercoaster."
Krajicek says, "Rohan always knew when to be tough with me and when to take it easy, Strategically, he helped me improve as a player and into a happier person."
"I got tough on some players and I didn't care who it was," says Franker, who helped to establish the standard for every Dutch player in the 1980s and 1990s. "If they saw my face, they knew they hard to work. You had to be 100 per cent professional, otherwise you wouldn't play for Holland. You had to walk the walk and set an example."
Peter Wessels is a product of the Dutch system. As one of the world's top juniors he is enlisted by Goetzke to practise with Krajicek, from his second-round victory over Derrick Rostagno. "Peter was someone Richard knew," says Goetzke. "Someone he felt comfortable with, so it enabled him to relax and it gave both of them a lift.
"At the start, we'd nearly gone back to a double-handed backhand, that's how bad it had been. Richard's backhand had been a weakness, his lesser stroke. But he served great, was good at the net and had good movement. In stopping his bid to try to perfect his backhand, we worked on his strengths. It was then tough to find a hole in his game."
Krajicek and Wessels sessions are not too long, an hour or so a day. "I remember him being pretty relaxed yet very focused and determined," remembers Wessels, who is now based in the United Arab Emirates. "In the past, they'd practised serve accuracy by aiming on muesli bars placed in the service box. These were muesli bars we both hated, but if one of us hit the bar the other one was forced to eat it. I remember hitting the bar, but he never ate it…"
"To me, personally, he looked different on court compared to some other
tournaments where I’ve seen him play. In the training sessions, he was
a bit more positive than usual. Sometimes he could get down on himself or even
a bit cranky when things didn't go his way, but I didn’t see that at all
during the tournament.
"It motivated me that he did so well. I had in my mind that it would be a great story if two Dutchmen could win Wimbledon in the same year."
It's three years since Krajicek first played on Centre Court, when he lost to defending champion Andre Agassi 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(8) in the 1993 fourth round. For the past two days, it has been raining in London. Krajicek stayed on top of Michael Stich, one of the sport's most naturally talented players, in a tough fourth-round victory by maintaining a really aggressive brand of tennis. Today, Wednesday, 3 July, Krajicek is confident that he can overcome Pete Sampras, the three-time champion, in a contest on the sport's grandest stage. The pair has met four times, but not since the Paris Indoors at the end of 1994.
"I always played good against Pete," admits Krajicek, who saves five break points in a 12-minute third game. "I knew he was a great front runner." With rain interrupting the match at 2-2 in the first set, Sir Cliff Richard, a member of the All England Club, is coaxed by chief executive Christopher Gorringe to sing during a break in play of three hours and 40 minutes. A request for one song, 'Summer Holiday', becomes an impromptu concert and his backing group, the 'Shadows', feature Pam Shriver, Conchita Martinez, Gigi Fernandez, Virginia Wade, and finally, to a big cheer, Martina Navratilova. The rain delay lasts three hours and 40 minutes. Krajicek bides him time, "relaxing, only doing things to help you feel good.
"Once I won that third game and we got to 4-4 and 5-5, I was surprised how well he played. I was surprised how well he started. There was so much energy. He felt really good on the court. It was a different Pete Sampras to any time I played him. Because I'd stayed with him, saving all of those break point chances, I felt that his energy level come down a bit. He knew I would be intimidated a bit by Centre Court. If Pete had broken me in the third game, I think it would have been totally different. I had a bit of luck, but from 4-4 we were equals."
The second chapter lasts one hour and 37 minutes. The third passage, a further 51 minutes. With a two-sets-to-love lead and at 1-1 in the third set, just as Krajicek strikes his 23rd ace, and, in spite of blue skies overhead, the players are forced into the locker room. Krajicek and Sampras don't return until the next day. "The reason why we couldn't play was because one of the ground staff slipped under the covers, leaving the court exposed," remembers Krajicek. With physio Jan Naaktgeboren set to work on Krajicek's increasingly sore shoulder, the hotel and room service beckoned. "Play was cancelled pretty much straight away.
"So many times you see top players compete and they are struggling in the beginning of a tournament, then an opponent makes a mistake or something happens, then their fortunes change. In my brain, I hoped this wasn't something that would save Pete. Maybe, if we'd returned, the match might have changed. Because I was in the flow and he was struggling. In the end, he had a night to re-group with his coach and I had a night of thinking what might happen."
Goetzke recalls, "Pete did not like to play Richard. You always felt in the match with Pete, and it was a tall order to come back from two sets down. Richard regrouped and carried the momentum into the following day."