Re­nault’s Nico Hülken­berg is no one-hit won­der when it comes to sport. Away from For­mula 1, ten­nis is his favourite game. New balls, please!


The Re­nault ace plays his other favourite sport

This is al­most the per­fect day for a knock­about, marred only by the wind swirling around the ve clay courts of the Mairie ten­nis club, just off Cap Mar­quet beach and a short stroll from the busy port of Cap d’Ail and the mon­eyed mi­lieu of Monaco be­yond. Every foot­step kicks up a brief puff of dust, not least those sent sky­ward by the pur­pose­ful stride of Nico Hülken­berg as he lets him­self in through the gate and moves to­wards the net, twirling his rac­quet through­out.

On court, Nico seems at ease and very much in his nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, dressed mod­ishly ten­nis-ca­sual, shorts obey­ing the ‘Goldilocks prin­ci­ple’ (nei­ther too long nor too short), socks less so (we’ll for­give him that; it’s very ‘now’ in the sports world) and base­ball cap point­ing res­o­lutely for­wards. He’s ac­tu­ally a mem­ber of the Monte Carlo Coun­try Club – the one up on the hill, home of the an­nual Rolex Masters tour­na­ment, of which the cur­rent cham­pion is one Rafael Nadal – but he as­sures us he’s not that good, and in­sists the Coun­try Club isn’t that ex­clu­sive. “Well, maybe a lit­tle bit,” he con­cedes, “but I don’t re­ally think so.”

Not that F1 Rac­ing will be thwack­ing any balls around the court to­day – we’re leav­ing that to CNN’s Amanda Davies, who has ar­rived in a pro-look­ing garb redo­lent of na­tional trea­sure Sue Barker in her prime.“Can you re­ally play for fun?” she calls to Nico across the court. “That’s what we’re do­ing,” he says with a grin, prowl­ing the base­line, jig­gling on his feet and spin­ning his rac­quet once more.

“Does he keep score, hon­estly?” we whis­per to Martin Poole, Nico’s per­for­mance coach, who sties a laugh. “No…”

Given Nico’s cho­sen domi­cile of Monaco, his choice of sport­ing pas­time is un­usual com­pared with that of his peers. Most of them pre­fer to cy­cle – the group ring­leaders are Alex Wurz and Jen­son But­ton, and reg­u­lar read­ers might re­call that three years ago we inltrated this se­cre­tive group, which in­cludes pro­fes­sional cy­clists as well as rac­ing driv­ers from all dis­ci­plines.

“I’m not into cy­cling at all,” says Nico. “I’ve tried and the Monaco cy­cling com­mu­nity tried to get me in. I went a few times and I’ll go out with them again – but it’s not my ‘thing’ some­how.”

Nico’s height and build would cer­tainly put him at the Mar­cel Kit­tel end of the two-wheeled spec­trum, a sprinter not a dis­tance ma­chine, but maybe it’s other el­e­ments of the cul­ture that put him off. The xa­tion of the keen­est cy­clists with form and style, per­haps, as de­tailed in the in­fa­mous Velom­i­nati pack­age of ‘Rules’, wherein the colour and length of el­e­ments such as shorts and socks are tightly prescribed. A swift look at the other users of the courts this morn­ing re­veals con­sid­er­able de­vi­a­tion from stan­dard ten­nis at­tire; no snob­bery here, it seems.

“Not at all,” agrees Nico. “I don’t care about that sort of thing. I don’t take it that se­ri­ously.

“I’ve been play­ing for a good ten years, but re­ally as a hobby, for plea­sure. I get fun out of it: it’s just you, your form, your rac­quet. There aren’t any other el­e­ments in­volved in it, which makes it good fun as well as good ex­er­cise.”

An an­ti­dote to the minu­tiae-de­pen­dent, mar­ginal-gains uni­verse of For­mula 1, then? That might be it. And, for sure, the new gen­er­a­tion of heav­ier, wide-track car is tougher than ever be­fore to nesse into the set-up ‘sweet spot’, and faster to drop out of it when con­di­tions change even slightly. Driv­ers up and down the grid have spent the months since the sea­son-open­ing Aus­tralian GP ex­press­ing frus­tra­tion at how they can lose – or even gain – per­for­mance be­tween ses­sions, even with­out al­ter­ing any set­tings.

“Yeah, we’ve found that some­times with our car,” says Nico. “It can be easy to change some things and you don’t re­ally un­der­stand why, or you can have the wind change be­tween ses­sions and all of a sud­den you lose a lot of per­for­mance. Maybe the more com­pact or bet­ter cars at the front are bet­ter pro­tected against these sce­nar­ios, but it’s a mat­ter of devel­op­ing the car; you have to un­der­stand how it works in dif­fer­ent con­di­tions and build on what you’ve got.

“It is dif­fer­ent for me, be­ing part of a man­u­fac­turer team now, although at the end of the day you’ve still got the same job to do. But you see and feel ev­ery­where that you’re work­ing for a much big­ger op­er­a­tion. You feel the weight, in terms of re­sources, of a ma­jor car man­u­fac­turer be­hind it – and also the sense of ex­pec­ta­tion too. But I think we’re on a good road, and re­cently we’ve taken some good steps for­ward in the right di­rec­tion. In F1, though, like you see with all the big teams, it takes time: no­body comes out of the ashes and de­stroys their ri­vals. You saw this team had a very trou­bled sea­son last year and, be­fore that, well, you know the his­tory – they’ve come from a difcult spot and just need to take a bit of time to re­build. “Ul­ti­mately it’s tight in the mideld, although I think maybe Wil­liams and Force In­dia have the up­per hand for now. But any­thing can hap­pen dur­ing a race in that part of the eld – there can be a crash, or a Safety Car, and that can bring you back into it. You need to be in the right place to take ad­van­tage of that, which is why you have to give it your best shot every time.”

What a fan­tas­ti­cally ap­pro­pri­ate turn of phrase for a rac­ing driver stand­ing on a ten­nis court. Even dur­ing a sim­ple knock­about Nico vis­i­bly un­winds – a lit­tle bit – from the rac­ing driver’s nat­u­rally de­fen­sive and cagey pad­dock per­sona. Although ‘best of three’ soon be­comes ‘best three out of ve’ and then ‘rst to ten’, a se­quence of de­vel­op­ments that amuses per­for­mance coach Poole no end. Hand a rac­ing driver some­thing to be com­pet­i­tive about, it seems, and they just aren’t able to re­sist.

“Are you even sweat­ing yet?” Davies calls across the court. “Yeah,” answers Nico. “A lit­tle bit…” His next re­turn-of-serve is a erce fore­hand sweep that di­rects the ball with hith­er­toun­par­al­leled ve­loc­ity… quite some dis­tance out of bounds. It’s fol­lowed into the boon­docks by a ragged ex­cla­ma­tion from Nico’s own throat: “Ar­rrgghhh!!!”

Per­haps it’s time, with the score de­clared at ten-four – by some rubric F1 Rac­ing has been un­able to fathom – for a break in play. We know he faces off against Daniil Kvyat oc­ca­sion­ally (see p60), but who else takes to the court with the Hulk? Surely there must be a few pro play­ers based here­abouts for tax pur­poses, who might be up for an all-star knock­about?

“That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion,” he muses, “be­cause ten­nis doesn’t have an off-sea­son like F1. I can’t play against any [Monaco-based] pro­fes­sion­als be­cause they’re hardly ever around, even if they live here! They travel so much more than we do, fol­low­ing the sea­sons but also play­ing in­doors. Ten­nis hap­pens ev­ery­where.

“Re­cently I’ve been play­ing Daniil Kvyat a lot. He’s based just here and we have a good laugh.”

Now, when we spoke to him, Daniil in­sisted that matches be­tween the two are “quite a close match”. But here, in the very theatre of conict, we might be able shake Nico down for in­tel­li­gence on who ac­tu­ally wins. He takes a deep breath and ex­hales with just the hint of a sigh as he mulls over the ques­tion.

“He does,” answers Nico nally, “be­cause I make too many mis­takes…

“When we play for real I have no pa­tience and I go for the big shots – they usu­ally end up in the net or far out. I’ve won a few times, too, but I think, on bal­ance, if I’m hon­est, he wins.”

The frank con­fes­sion hangs in the air for a mo­ment be­fore the breeze car­ries it away. Has ever a rac­ing driver ad­mit­ted to such a thing? We should get them play­ing ten­nis more of­ten…


Hülken­berg’s got the clob­ber, he’s got the skills and he’s cer­tainly got the req­ui­site com­pet­i­tive streak

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