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I'M NOT TOO OLD FOR THE GAME: PIOLINE 

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FROM AMITAVA DAS GUPTA   |   Chennai   |   Published 06.01.01, 12:00 AM

Chennai, Jan. 6 :    Chennai, Jan. 6:  At a time when the ATP is actively backing GenerationNext's bid to overthrow the old guard, Cedric Pioline is a law unto himself. Five months shy of 32, the French star is getting more consistent with every passing year and standing like a rock in the face of relentless pressure from the likes of Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt and Magnus Norman. The oldest player in the top-50 of Champions Race, the world No. 16 bagged a career-high two titles in 2000 to post a top-20 finish for the fourth consecutive year. And this, despite being out of action for over a month after breaking three bones on the left hand playing volleyball and needing surgery. Son of distinguished volleyball-playing parents, Pioline may never have been in tennis had he obeyed his Romanian mother's wish. A member of the national volleyball team, she wanted his son to pursue studies rather than make a career out of sport. But 17-year-old Cedric was a stubborn young man and stuck to his favourite sport. The Formula One racing fan turned pro in 1989 and took three seasons to crack the top-50. He stayed in that zone for five years before moving into the top-20 bracket. Winner of five career titles, Pioline has lost in the final 12 times including twice in Grand Slam events. Both those defeats - '93 US Open and '97 Wimbledon - were at the hands of the one and only Pete Sampras. The stormy petrel of French tennis in his younger days, Pioline is not as fluent while talking as he is on court. Despite being a man in heavy demand - he did TV shoots, posed for fashion magazines and attended fashion shows - during his weeklong stay here, the Frenchman agreed to speak to The Telegraph after his post-quarter final press conference last evening. Following are excerpts Q How do you manage to defy the age factor? A (Murmuring) How many times do I have to answer that question! I know there are many people who feel I am too old. But I'm only 31 and don't think that way at all. I'm not too old for the game. Q The ATP is promoting the new generation of players. Don't you feel insecure or envious? A There are some fine young players now and it's very good that ATP is promoting them. New faces, new champions are good for tennis. Why should I be bothered by what ATP is doing? But yes, I wish they did something like this when players like me were coming up. We may have benefited. Q Do you believe the young brigade will take over from guys like you, Sampras and Agassi in the next couple of years? A Some talented youngsters have had some great results recently. I don't think all of them will come into the top-10, but guys like Safin, Kuerten, Norman and Philippoussis have a very good chance of going to the top. Q After being on the circuit for 13-14 years, what keeps you going? A I want to improve my ranking and get back to the top-10. I want to win more matches, more titles. Q You have been on the losing side of two Grand Slam finals. Do you honestly think you still have a chance of winning a major? A Why not? I'm always working hard to improve my game, I'm healthy and playing some good tennis. So who knows. I just hope that I don't meet Sampras in another Slam final. Q You had some problems with the French federation in the early 90s and refused to play Davis Cup. One of the ties you skipped was against India in Frejus and France were shocked. Do you rue that decision? A Yeah, they won't let me bring my personal coach for Davis Cup ties. But that was sorted out and I've played many times for France. No regrets for skipping those ties. Q A lot of top men often stay out of Davis Cup. Do you enjoy playing the team competition? A Of course I enjoy Davis Cup. It's a nice feeling to be playing for your country and doing well. It's so different than playing on the Tour where you are on your own. Some of my best moments came in Davis Cup like when we beat Sweden to win the title in '96. Q France has several talented players but none of them have been really successful. You continue to be the No. 1 player from your country. Isn't it a worry for French tennis? A It's true that our young players have not made a big impression. They have the potential for sure, but maybe they are not working as hard as they ought to be. Q Is French tennis suffering because of a surge in soccer popularity after the '98 World Cup and Euro 2000 triumphs? A I don't think so. Soccer is the No. 1 game but tennis is in quite a healthy state too. We have several important tournaments, the federation has a good development programme and there are lots of good players coming up. Six Frenchmen finished in the top-50 of the Champions Race. That's not bad. Q How many more years would you like to play? A I don't know. It could be two years, three years, anything. It all depends on how healthy I am and how I feel. I won't be in the game if I'm not enjoying it. I don't know when that day will come. Q Finally, what about life after tennis? A I haven't thought about it yet, but I'd definitely like to be involved with the game I've played so long.    
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