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McEnroe and Becker Take Over the Court : When West Germany Plays U.S. in Davis Cup, They'll Occupy Spotlight

July 22, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

HARTFORD, Conn. — They have been asking the question for almost two years now.

What's wrong with John?

Meanwhile, for the last six months, they have been asking the same question about another player.

What's wrong with Boris?

John McEnroe and Boris Becker are here this week, hoping to find something right in the midst of the wrongs. They are separated by nine years and five places in the world rankings, but McEnroe and Becker are now strangely linked by their problems.

McEnroe, at 28, has been suffering through a mid-life crisis, at least by sporting standards.

As for the 19-year-old Becker, some say he's in the midst of a teen-age crisis.

Normally, that kind of problem is dismissed with a shrug. But when you've won Wimbledon twice, have become a millionaire before your 18th birthday, and are the most recognizable person in West Germany, even simple growing pains immediately become fodder for the public and world press.

Ostensibly, the tennis folks are gathered in Hartford for a consolation show, or more correctly, a Davis Cup relegation match between West Germany and the United States. Although the stakes are high--the loser will fall out of the prestigious, 16-nation world group competition and into zone qualifying in 1988--affairs of this sort usually merit a paragraph or two in the newspaper.

All has changed because of McEnroe and Becker. Clearly, Mac vs. Boris and their problems will be the dominant themes at this three-day event, starting Friday at the Civic Center.

Call it a three-part drama starring the once and, presumably, future kings, McEnroe and Becker, respectively.

First, let's start with the travails of our former No. 1.

Since reaching the U.S. Open final in 1985, McEnroe has evolved from a young, temperamental artiste into an older--but still temperamental--family man. Marriage and fatherhood might have mellowed McEnroe off the court but it's the same old stuff between the lines.

Unfortunately, for him, the same old stuff doesn't come off his racket anymore.

He's tried short lay-offs. He's tried long lay-offs. A lean Mac couldn't cut it. An out-of-shape Mac was even worse. After his six-month layoff in 1986, McEnroe came back and played too soon and too often. Now, saying he has finally realized the importance of taking care of his body, McEnroe has embarked on a conditioning program.

Remember, though, that was tried before. McEnroe's short-lived arrangement with coach Paul Cohen resulted in a gaunt look and ended after his first-round loss in the U.S. Open last year.

For a stretch in late '86, which included a 15-match winning streak and three tournament titles, it looked as though he was all the way back. These days, however, the artistry of McEnroe appears only in short spurts. He has appeared in four finals this year but hasn't won a Grand Prix title since last October. His latest efforts have hardly been inspiring.

At the World Team Cup event in Dusseldorf in May, McEnroe lost his temper against Miloslav Mecir and lost the match when he left the court because of a back injury. Less than a week later, he lost in the first round to little-known Horacio de la Pena at the French Open. Since the back injury prevented him from playing at Wimbledon, McEnroe's singles match on Friday will be his first in more than six weeks.

"I wouldn't say I'm 100%, but I feel I'm definitely improving," McEnroe said at a press conference this week. "I'm hitting the ball reasonably well now. I'm hoping for the best."

Said Becker: "He's not playing that great anymore, not with the consistency throughout the year. But he can play a couple of matches a year really good . . . especially in the Davis Cup kind of thing. He had time to prepare himself and really psych himself up."

Becker, too, has had time to reflect on what has already transpired in 1987. At Wimbledon, Peter Doohan of Australia pulled the upset of the year by defeating Becker in the second round. At least Becker didn't have to suffer the embarrassment of losing earlier than former coach Gunther Bosch's latest protege, Christian Saceanu.

The questions about Becker's 1987 performance obviously intensified after Wimbledon, but his problems this year really started at the Australian Open. A fourth-round loss to Wally Masur in Melbourne featured a McEnroe-like tantrum, which consisted of Becker hitting balls toward the umpire's chair and out of the stadium, breaking three rackets and spitting water in the umpire's direction.

Bosch left Becker after the Masur episode, telling reporters that he was upset with Becker's behavior and the deterioration of his training habits. Shortly thereafter, Becker quelled the criticism with his dominating performance at Indian Wells, winning the championship without dropping a set.

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