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Centre Court Victory Has Becker Feeling Young Again

Wimbledon: Three-time champion reaches third round with 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 win over countryman Kiefer.

June 25, 1999|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WIMBLEDON, England — Membership has its privileges, and so, Boris Becker used his considerable influence, decreeing that his second retirement party at the All England Club will last until the weekend, at the very least.

The decision--announced in the form of Becker's 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 second-round victory over German countryman and 15th-seeded Nicolas Kiefer--transformed the stiff upper lips around Centre Court into a chanting, delirious band of extroverts Thursday at Wimbledon.

Becker, a three-time champion and club member, was the conductor, exhorting the crowd by pumping his fist when he hit an ace--on his second serve, no less--to reach match point for the third time. Kiefer netted a passing shot, and Becker waved his arms in the air in delight after defeating his fierce rival, looking like a thrilled teenager, not a weary and often injured 31-year-old.

"I can't say this is my place any more," Becker said. "I used to own it, but Pete Sampras has taken over the keys. So we have new ownership on that court.

"But I still feel obviously very much at home on it and very comfortable. It was a great moment for me stepping on the court. I think the people put players here on the court. They put me on Centre Court, and it was just a great two hours for me."

The best of Becker has not been on such vivid display in a major setting lately. He has been a bit player on the tour, by choice, and surprised his colleagues by returning here after declaring in 1997 that it was his final Wimbledon.

This was a gamble, Becker acknowledged. He barely avoided an embarrassing loss to a British wild-card entrant in the first round. To him, that was not an acceptable legacy.

Becker found what he was looking for Thursday.

"It was like almost I won the tournament, but unfortunately it was only the second round, and it was a great feeling to be back on Centre Court," he said. "And it brought out the best of me."

He survived three match points in his opening match, and even his longtime coach, Mike DePalmer Jr., looked stunned at the improvement.

"Every time he stepped on the court, he was trying to bring his best--he was fighting a lot of injuries [before]," DePalmer said.

"Today, everything was lined up for him . . . the future of German tennis."

DePalmer wasn't being melodramatic. The confrontation between Becker and Kiefer had all the emotional issues--the future of German tennis against the aging mentor. And, lately the pupil and the mentor have not got along well. Kiefer revealed earlier this week that a rift had developed over German Davis Cup issues and that Becker refused to say hello to him here.

Kiefer declined to reopen the soap opera, and Becker insisted he merely had his game face on at Wimbledon this week.

"Today was the first time for me on Centre Court here at Wimbledon," said Kiefer, who will turn 22 July 5. "And I told you it was a great experience for me, and I wanted to go back."

Becker said he is prepared for that day, and the day when he is finished.

"There are a number of players that are able to excite the crowd, excite the spectators, excite the fans at home, and, yes, I don't think there's going to be a great hole or great gap," he said. "I'm basically gone already for the last two years.

"I'm just a shadow of myself. I have left the stage two years ago and the tennis is fine."

Becker is dealing with his Wimbledon tightrope with his usual humor. He was asked how he felt on Wednesday, the morning after his five-set victory.

"Oh, my God!" he said. "I felt my age, tennis player-wise."

Interestingly enough, in the third round he plays a charismatic teenager who is making his Wimbledon debut, Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Hewitt, 18, has lost one set in two matches and has no trepidation when it comes to diving on the grass.

The winner of Becker-Hewitt will meet second-seeded Patrick Rafter of Australia or Thomas Enqvist. Rafter survived a formidable test from his doubles partner, Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3), 6-7 (9-7), 6-2, finishing shortly before darkness.

Rafter wanted to stop playing after the third set.

"I thought the light was starting to get pretty ordinary late in the third, and [an official] said [referee] Alan Mills wanted us to stay out there," Rafter said. "I said, 'Alan Mills isn't playing, so how's he going to judge that?' I think they should probably have a light meter and gauge it by that. Obviously, in the end it worked well for me."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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