MONTREAL - There's no question who Artturi Lehkonen will be cheering for during the 2019 Rogers Cup.
It's the tournament's top seed, Rafael Nadal, who also just happens to be the defending champion.
Lehkonen is a longtime supporter of the incredibly successful Spaniard, who is currently ranked as the world No. 2 behind Serbia's Novak Djokovic.
"I've always loved him," said Lehkonen, regarding the 18-time Grand Slam winner. "He's one of those guys who never gives up. He plays with a lot of tenacity. He's on every ball. He doesn't quit on a ball. I definitely admire him. He's a hell of a player."
An avid tennis player during the offseason, Lehkonen does his very best to display similar persistence when he hits the court back home in Finland.
While he doesn't boast Nadal's skill set with a racket, of course, he still makes a serious effort to give his opponents a good workout.
"I'm the guy who runs after every ball. I usually play against guys who are a little bit better than me, so they try to move me from corner to corner. But, I try to keep the ball alive, make them tired and force them to make mistakes," explained Lehkonen, on the subject of his playing style. "Even though they're a little bit better than me - and by that I mean they're a lot better - they don't really play tennis anymore so it kind of evens the odds when I'm in better shape."
Right now, Lehkonen plays tennis once or twice a week when he isn't in the gym or on the ice training for the upcoming campaign. It's one of several sports the three-year NHL veteran participates in for some bonus training and to simply enjoy himself, too.
"Me and my brother and my buddies, we play all different kinds of sports. Throughout the summer, we'll play badminton, tennis, basketball, beach volleyball and soccer. We'll play pretty much anything that has a ball in it," revealed Lehkonen, who espouses the benefits of mixing things up activity-wise when summer rolls around. "You've got to switch it up now and then. It's good mentally when you're focusing on different things other than hockey all the time. It's a good thing for your head and your training."
That being said, the former second-round selection loves keeping things competitive when it comes to his tennis matches.
Back in late June, Lehkonen and his good friend Teuvo Teravainen of the Carolina Hurricanes joined forces at the Score Cup in Turku and ultimately claimed the coveted trophy.
"Coming into the tournament, one of my good buddies Lukas Hradecky had been chirping me that his team was going to beat us. He's a goalkeeper for Bayer Leverkusen and the Finnish national team. We ended up beating them in the final," mentioned Lehkonen, who partook in the charity event to help raise money for underprivileged children. "We played one set against them and won 6-2. We didn't lose a match."
The road to the Score Cup crown for Lehkonen and Teravainen also included a memorable victory over Jesperi Kotkaniemi and his playing partner Henrik Borgstrom of the Florida Panthers.
"We absolutely annihilated them," cracked Lehkonen, before setting the stage for a contest on North American soil in the near future. "I know that KK and I are going to play when we come to Montreal. We're going to have a one-on-one matchup against each other. He's alright at tennis, but I should kick his butt. I will destroy him."
In preparation for that highly-anticipated duel against the Canadiens' No. 15, Lehkonen recently had a warm-up match of sorts versus Teravainen.
Unfortunately, it was the Hurricanes' sniper who emerged victorious in Helsinki.
"Every summer, we play a game or two against each other. He plays a lot. We have really even matchups, but he's a little bit better. I tried to chirp him and get in his head, but he eventually came out on top," said Lehkonen. "We had a really tight game this year. We played for two-and-a-half hours."
Let's play, Pleky!
While Lehkonen is clearly looking forward to his match against Kotkaniemi, he would relish the opportunity to square off against former teammate Tomas Plekanec at some point as well.
"I'm kind of disappointed that me and Pleky never went to play," said Lehkonen. "I've heard that Pleky is actually a really good tennis player. I would've loved to beat him."
If the pair do eventually have a duel, expect some fireworks and mind games aplenty on both sides from start to finish.
"He wouldn't want to play against me. I would get into his head. I would play dirty after every mistake he makes," concluded Lehkonen, on his strategy to best the 36-year-old veteran. "But, I know that he would give me the same amount of chirps on the other side, too. He would never shut up."
No doubt Plekanec's better half - former WTA Tour star Lucie Safarova - would give him some tips in advance of the meeting to counter Lehkonen's strategic maneuvers.