NEW YORK — Boris Becker has hit Manhattan. Manhattan thinks Boris is a hit. Where this relationship goes from here is anybody's guess, but Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden the personable West German tennis player/teen-heartthrob did all the right things to win over a tough audience.
First of all, he beat Paul Annacone, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. That advances Becker to the second round of the $500,000 Nabisco Masters tournament. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that the 8,996 New Yorkers watching the match have, en masse, adopted Becker as one of their own. People tend to like that which rings faintly familiar, and Becker's charging, blasting style of aggressive play seems like native behavior to New Yorkers. Anyone who walks the sidewalks here at lunch hour or takes a cross-town cab will know what the feeling is.
Becker plays with a get-out-of-my-way style. It's a style that mesmerized and shocked not a few tennis observers when, at age 17, Becker won at Wimbledon by diving into the dirt to retrieve balls.
There was no dirt on the floor of the Garden, just a blue carpet, but Becker got rug burns going after shots. Tell Annacone about it.
"He hits the ball so hard, you can't let him get away from you," Annacone said. "Once he starts hitting his shots, his emotion and adrenaline take over. With a player like that, you have to get ahead. I did that in the first set."
The first set was all booming serves and quick exchanges at net. It's odd that both players, who are so often characterized as relying on power, are really unsurpassed touch players. Both players are tall (6-foot 1-inch) yet both are exceedingly agile and able to get low on shots.
That's especially helpful at the net; their agility gets them to balls that would pass other players and their height (and long arms) gives them excellent coverage.
"He has a pretty good touch, but I don't think it's as good as McEnroe," Becker said. He meant it as a compliment.
At 2-all in the first set and Annacone serving at 15-0, both players showed their soft side. Becker hit a drop shot disguised as a short lob. The ball dropped hard and fast.
Annacone had not been fooled. Even as the ball came off Becker's racquet, Annacone rushed to the net and returned a cross-court shot that skidded on the line and flew wide. Becker, somehow, was there and chopped an angled drop shot that was right on. Annacone stood staring at the court as if the lines had suddenly moved outward.
Becker, whose displays of emotion on court are infrequent, let loose with his only nod to rowdiness: with his elbow bent and head down, Becker pumped his fist and said something alongs the lines of "All right!"
Becker's general silence is not icy, it's intense. Both Becker and Annacone are deadly intense. And while both appear outwardly unmoved when they hit blowout winners, both are quietly swaggering inside.
When Annacone was up, 5-3, in the first set, he wasn't above sending a volley--like a heat-seeking missile--right at Becker's body. Becker covered his head with his hands, jumped out of the ball's path, spun and glared at Annacone.
Annacone has fought hard for what he has gained on the tour. The 22-year-old made a dramatic leap in 1985, rising from No. 94 on the computer to his current No. 16.
Annacone travels with his older brother, Steve, who is his manager/adviser. The advice is mostly: "Work hard, kid. You can make it." In a sport filled with party-boys, Paul and Steve Annacone are the tour drudges; sure, they might catch a movie now and then, but there's a bed check at 10 p.m.
"I think I've made a good jump this season," Annacone said. "It's harder to move up from where I am now, but I want to break into the Top 10."
And if he has to establish himself with the likes of Becker by firing to the midsection, so be it. The body-shot was only the first of several skirmishes.
Although they rarely surface, Becker carries his emotions close to the surface. His is as apt to curse in English as he is in German. When he's subdued but angry, he will slowly shake his head and make a great show of adjusting the strings on his racquet. Most of the time, he holds his tongue.
When his serve deserted him early in the second set, Becker screamed and looked at his coach, Ion Tiriac, for guidance. Tiriac's manner betrays nothing. Most of the time while Becker is playing, Tiriac merely smiles from behind his massive drooping mustache.
Tiriac smiled broadly as Becker aced Annacone in the third set to win the match.
Becker will play Mats Wilander Thursday in the quaterfinals. The third-seeded Wilander defeated Scott Davis, 6-3, 6-4. It was the first meeting between the two, and neither got off to a good start.
Wilander did not hit, but managed to pull himself back from wherever his straying mind had taken him.
"I think he started out a little slow," Davis said. "I capitalized well, then all of a sudden I just gave it right back to him. He started serving better as the course of the match wore on."
The only upset of the first day was a mild one. Johan Kriek, seeded ninth, beat fourth-seeded Stefan Edberg, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2.
Kriek next must play Ecuador's Andres Gomez, who, as a last-minute substitute for ailing Jimmy Connors, upset Henri Leconte of France, 7-6, 6-1.
Gomez was flown into New York from Washington Tuesday morning and did not even have time to practice on the Garden's odd surface.