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JIM MURRAY

Tennis Still Has Him on a String

August 07, 1994|JIM MURRAY

Tennis, which used to be the most formful of sports, has become the least. Like golf it has gone from Who's Who to Who in the World's That?

The top seeds never sprout. When Big Bill Tilden, or Donald Budge or Rod Laver took the court, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Today, it's about as foregone as a lottery.

Take this week's Los Angeles Open at the UCLA Tennis Center. The promoters shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to deck their draw with recognizable names like Michael Chang, Andre Agassi and Boris Becker. By Friday, only Becker was left. And, even for Boris, his nickname has gone from "Boom Boom" to " Auf Wiedersehen ," from marquee to small print.

In 1985 when a young redheaded German who played tennis like a guy diving off cliffs shockingly and convincingly won Wimbledon at the age of a mere 17, the tennis world was stunned. Rubbed its eyes. Only the year before, Becker was ranked No. 65 in the world. The year before that, he was 563rd.

He was the youngest player to win Wimbledon. And, until then, the only German.

He was an imposing physical specimen, not quite Schwarzenegger but close enough, 6 feet 3, 190 pounds. He played a game that was just this side of awesome and the temptation for us knights of the press to call it blitzkrieg or to liken his advance through the seeds to the German army going through the low countries was irresistible. The tennis establishment quickly frowned on any military application of his actions. They even protested the nickname "Boom Boom." But the facts of the matter were, this appellation was fixed on him by those of us who remembered an old baseball pitcher named Walter Beck, who was dubbed "Boom Boom" in honor of the sound his pitches made when batters bounced them off the old tin fence in Philadelphia's Baker Field. It fit alliteratively, not militarily.

But whatever you called Becker, the reality was, he was the German High Command of Tennis.

His game was not only effective, it was thrilling. He pulverized the ball, he chased it down with the abandon of a hawk after a mouse. He flew, he charged the net, he was a flame on center court. He was aground more often than Exxon Valdez, in the air more than the Luftwaffe. He ended a match looking like something that had fallen into a rose bush or backed into a cactus plant.

He won Wimbledon three times in five years and was a finalist six times in seven years. Only Bjorn Borg could match numbers like those and Borg so to speak set fire to himself doing it.

Did Becker? Well, unlike Borg, who never did, he won a U.S. Open. He added an Australian Open. He was a picture on a lot of walls.

Then he didn't win anything. At least, anything of any importance. Even Wimbledon eluded him.

His serve didn't lose velocity, just accuracy. He played with the same heavy-legged lunge at the ball, but most matches would find him throwing his head skyward and screaming imprecations in German over missed chances or unforced errors.

He came to the L.A. Open this week at great expense to management, and some wise guys were prepared to cover their eyes. And, suddenly, in a second-round match against his countryman, Karsten Braasch, it looked as if they were right. Becker had lost at least one of his Booms. He became a baby Boomer. The score for him was 2-6, 0-3 when Braasch realized who was on the other side of the net. "Well, yes, it was Boris Becker," he said. "And when he thought he had lost the match, he calmed down and began to play like he can."

In other words, he got the Boom back. He got back into the tournament, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2. I won't say Braasch was nervous--but he double-faulted away his own match point, the tennis equivalent of walking in the winning run.

Boom Boom earned the right to play Jason Stoltenberg, whoever he is, in the semifinals. Nobody ever called him Boom Boom. And he lost to the real Boom Boom, 6-4, 6-4, Saturday night.

Becker surveyed his career after the Braasch match. He's only 26, why should his best tennis be behind him? "Well," he began, "you have to remember when I came in the game 10 years ago, I brought the power game into the equation. They were playing a more mechanical, more mathematical game. I played a game they hadn't seen in a while. They called me Boom Boom, you know."

We know.

He seems to play a game where he is bored until it becomes desperate. Is that correct? Becker shakes his head. "It's not that I'm a slow starter. It's that I am usually the favorite. The other guy has nothing to lose. He comes out all guns firing. I have always played difficult matches."

Well, maybe he doesn't dive for balls any more? "I do pick my surface," Becker acknowledged. "I may dive for a ball indoors but I check for hardness first."

The old Becker would dive off the Empire State Building at the drop of a volley.

He's only 26. In any other sport, a 26-year-old is just starting out. But tennis almost invented the word burnout. How come?

"No off-season," Becker says quickly. "We have a racket in our hands 12 months a year. The pressure is constant. Borg retires at age 25 but he has had a racket in his hand for 12 years by then."

Well, of course, plumbers have a wrench in their hands for 40 years, an Arnold Palmer has had a golf club in his hands for 50, a miner has a pick and shovel. Maybe after three Wimbledons and two other Grand Slam event victories, the burning desire flames out?

"I still have the burning desire," Becker insists. "I still intend to win, to improve. You have to improve or the game passes you."

Now that Pete Sampras has succeeded him as the-man-to-beat in the game, does he accept the secondary role? "I intend to bother Mr. Sampras," the Boomer assures you.

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