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Lendl Hopes He's Improved Enough to Stop Becker on His Turf

July 06, 1986|JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post

WIMBLEDON, England — After all the talk about how open this Wimbledon was, the men's final comes down to this: the best tennis player in the world against the best grass-court tennis player in the world, the hottest player in the game against the hottest property.

It is fitting that Boris Becker will face Ivan Lendl today (Channels 4 and 39, 8 a.m. PDT, delayed) for the title that each man wants desperately for completely different reasons.

For Becker, success here came so quickly and so easily when he won the championship last year at 17.

For Lendl, Wimbledon has been an annual struggle. Despite three Grand Slam titles, nine Grand Slam final appearances, before this year Lendl only twice reached the Wimbledon semifinals and never the final. But now, after working tirelessly with Tony Roche for the last 12 months, Lendl is a vastly improved grass-court player.

Roche, who was a finalist here in 1968, was one of the game's great volleyers. Since Lendl hired him at the 1985 French Open, Roche has turned Lendl into a good volleyer. Lendl is much sharper at the net, more confident and able to read an opponent's passing shots.

"I am not a serve-and-volleyer," Lendl said Friday. "But I have forced myself to serve and volley to try to win this tournament."

Lendl's discomfort on this surface was never more evident than in his difficult five-set semifinal victory over Slobodan Zivojinovic. On any other surface, Zivojinovic would have had no chance against Lendl, but on grass, with Zivojinovic's huge serve and Lendl's occasional lapses in confidence, the match was close. Lendl has only lost three matches in 10 months, but on this surface he is almost always vulnerable.

By contrast, Becker is the quintessential grass-court player. His game is raw power, and if his serve is on, he is almost impossible to beat. Never was that more evident than in his impressive semifinal victory over Henri Leconte.

The Frenchman is the d'Artagnan of tennis: handsome, daring, swashbuckling. When he's on, he can hit any shot in tennis. But Friday, he couldn't touch Becker's serve. He had one break point the entire match and won a set only because he played a brilliant third-set tiebreaker.

"I think it will be very hard to beat Boris the way he is playing right now," Leconte said. "His serve is unbelievable."

Becker's performance here has been extraordinary. Last year, he was so inexperienced he didn't seem to realize what he was accomplishing. He just had fun and kept winning until the Duke of Kent handed him the championship trophy.

This year, Becker is a star, making unbelievable amounts of money and receiving rock-star-like attention. He is different on the court: more serious, more apt to get upset when things go wrong. He is no longer the big, powerful kid just having a good time. The game is a job now.

But Becker does the job well, especially under pressure. He has dropped only two sets here, and his play has improved with each match. "Last year, I was just playing," he said. "Nobody knew me and I just won matches, and everyone said it was nice. Now, I have won, I understand more about the pressures. Last year, playing the final, I had no idea what to do. I just played and played and finally I won. This year, I will know what to do. We will see if that is good."

Becker is a better tennis player than he was a year ago. But Lendl is a better player than last year's losing finalist, Kevin Curren. Lendl has won four of five matches against Becker, though none on grass. Also, Lendl has made it plain on several occasions that he resents Becker's popularity, and Becker has been amused by Lendl's constant war with the world.

Today, though, their goal will be the same: to win Wimbledon. Becker wants to prove wrong those who have claimed his victory last year was a fluke, and Lendl wants to prove wrong those who said he could not win the most important grass-court tournament in the world.

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