Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

As always, the men’s semifinals sandwiched the women’s final, so Becker and Agassi had to be on court at 11 o’clock in the morning. Only at the US Open could a semifinal match start with the stadium half empty.

Those who came late missed a wonderful seventy-one-minute first set. Becker saved four set points and Agassi three. Becker finally won in a 12-10 tiebreak.
Sitting in the stands, neither Brett nor Tiriac felt overjoyed at the end of it. Relieved, yes. Perhaps, they thought, Boris would escape on his will and his guile, because, once again, he was not playing the kind of tennis either man wanted to see him play. Point after point, he stood behind the baseline exchanging ground strokes with Agassi. Only when he had too, it seemed, did he come in.

Brett and Becker had sat and talked at length after Becker’s quarterfinal victory over Aaron Krickstein. Becker had been down a set and a break in that match before he had snapped out of his lethargy to win the match in four sets. “He knows very well,” Brett said afterward, “that he can’t even think about playing that way on Saturday if he wants to win.”

And yet, here it was, Saturday, and Becker was back behind the baseline against a man he had to attack to beat. Maybe the conditions – cold and windy, a complete switch from earlier in the tournament – threw Becker off. Whatever it was, he could not keep up the clay-court style of game he was playing. Agassi’s shots began finding their mark regularly. Becker wasn’t even making him sweat to hold serve. At one point, he won six points in eight games that Agassi served? When Becker didn’t get his serve in, Agassi controlled the points.

Agassi broke Becker nine times in thirteen service games during the last three sets. No doubt, he had returned extremely well. But Becker doesn’t get broken nine times when he is coming in. It can happen only if he plays behind the baseline.

Agassi won in four sets. He ended it with a service winner and promptly knelt in a prayerful pose somewhat akin to The Thinker – remarkable behavior from someone who, a week earlier, on this same court, had spewed profanities and spit on an umpire. Becker said nothing, but he noticed.

Considering the fact a young American had just beaten the defending champion, the crowd was surprisingly quiet. The applause was a little more than polite, but not much. Becker tried too hard to be gracious in his press conference. He claimed that he had played better tennis against Agassi than he had in 1989, in the final against Lendl.

“Andre was just too good,” he said.

Later that night, Becker admitted he had gone too far in praising Agassi.

“I didn’t want to sound like a bad loser,” he said. “He did play well, but I probably went too far, saying what I did. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who just says, ‘I was bad’, as an excuse for losing.”

Wimbledon 90: Becker vs Edberg

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

When Becker walked on court for the final, on a glistening, postcard-perfect day, there was another problem. Katarina Witt, the glamorous German ice skater, had come to town earlier in the week. She was in the process of making a deal with Tiriac, and he had invited her to Wimbledon. Becker, single again, had spent some time with her.

It didn’t take long for the London tabloids to get cranked up. Now, as Becker walked on court, he looked up toward the friends’ box, expecting to see Brett and Tiriac’s assistant, Heather McLachlan, sitting there. That had been the drill the entire tournament. But now, in addition to Brett and McLachlan, Becker’s sister was there. That was fine. So was Katarina Witt. That wasn’t fine.
From his seat, Brett saw a look pass over Becker’s face. “It was a shock,” Becker said later. “I never expected to see her there. Heather had just given her the ticket to sit there without thinking about what it would me. She told me later she was sorry, that she made a mistake.”
What it meant was tabloid mania. Front page pictures galore, rumors about a Becker-Witt romance everywhere. It wasn’t what Becker needed starting a Wimbledon final.
Those thoughts, his feeling of satisfaction after the semifinal, and Edberg’s brilliance made Becker look helpless the first two sets.

“I just didn’t feel like I was in a Wimbledon final,” he said. “I didn’t even feel nervous going on court. Then I got a little distracted at the start (by Witt), and the next thing I know it’s 6-2 6-2. Then, my only thought was to not make a complete fool of myself.”

Edberg was also as shocked as Becker. How could it be so easy? He had lost three Grand Slam finals in eighteen months. Maybe it was in turn at last.
Or maybe not. Edberg had a break point in the first game of the third set. It was, for all intents and purposes, a match point as far as Becker was concerned. He came in and Edberg teed up another backhand. He ripped it crosscourt. Not this time: Becker read it perfectly and knocked off a sharp backhand volley. From there, he held. Given a glimmer of life, he broke Edberg for the first time in the next game. Maybe, he thought, I can win a set.
He won it. Then he won another. They had played for two hours and fifteen minutes. Now they would play the first fifth set in a Wimbledon final since McEnroe-Connors in 1982. Becker was wound up, stoking. Edberg was reeling.

“I was all the way to fifth gear,” Becker said. “He wasn’t there yet. I needed to take him out before he got there.”

He had his chance. Serving at 1-2, Edberg served two double faults, the second one an ugly balloon that almost went over the baseline. Becker was up 3-1. The match was on his racquet.

“But somehow I could’t keep my mind right there on the match,” he said. “I started to think about holding that trophy again. I knew that if I served the match out, I would be on the same side of the net where I had been the other three times I had won. Those were wrong thoughts at that time. If I win the game at 3-1, he’s finished. But I couldn’t keep my concentration.”

Becker needed to, as Navratilova would put it, stay in the present. Instead, he had let his mind wander into the future. At 30-all, Edberg chipped a backhand and Becker didn’t get down far enough for the volley. He netted it. Break point. Becker came in behind a serve and had an easy forehand volley. He pushed it wide.

Edberg pumped a fist. Becker had let him get into fifth gear. “He was in fifth and I was out of gas,” he said later. With Edberg serving at 4-4, Edberg came up with the shot of the match, a perfect backhand topspin lob that landed on the line, to get one last service break. He skipped to his chair while Becker slumped. Becker tried to talk to himself into it one more time but it as too late. Edberg served it out, finishing with a perfect kick serve that Becker just got to but pushed wide.

As the ball landed, Edberg hurled the ball he had in his hand toward the sky as Pickard leapt from his seat, screaming. Becker, never classier, climbed over the net and hugged Edberg. His eyes were glassy.

“I really couldn’t believe I had lost after coming so far back,” he said. “I went home the next day and wrote for hours and thought and tried to figure it out. In the end, I thought maybe it was his time. He had lost three straight finals. He had been hurt in one that he probably would have won. We’ve played so many times that we both deserve some good things. He’s a good guy. He’s different than me, it doesn’t show his emotion, but he is a great player. I decided he deserved this Wimbledon.”

For Edberg, this second Wimbledon was even better than the first because of the travails of the past two years. He even got to go to the champions’ dinner. In 1988, with the final postponed until Monday, he hadn’t been able to go. This time, he got to go. When he arrived at the dinner, he raced up to Navratilova, panicked.

“What kind of dance do we have to do?” he asked her.

Navratilova laughed. Once, it had been part of Wimbledon tradition for the two champions to dance the first dance together. But in 1978, the dinner had been moved to the Savoy Hotel. There was no room in the ballroom for a dance floor and no more first dance.
Edberg was relieved. The thought of dancing in front of a thousand people was far more terrifying than the thought of being down 3-1 in the fifth. He had survived that and he didn’t have to dance. A perfect day.

Edberg and Navratilova sat at the head table and got to hear the toast that climaxes every Wimbledon. Shortly before midnight, John Curry stood up and raised his glass.

“To the Queen,” he said

Everyone in the room stood. “The Queen,” they chorused back. The Championships of 1990 were over.

Also read:
Wimbledon 1990: Becker and Edberg in a Centre Court reunion
Wimbledon 1988: Edberg, a new deserving champion
Portrait of Stefan Edberg, by Rex Bellamy

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Becker and Edberg had reason to want to do well on the clay this spring. Each believed that he allowed the French Open to slip away the previous year. Becker had come from two sets down to go up a break in the fifth set against Edberg in the semifinals, but had run out of gas. That put Edberg in the final against Michael Chang. He went up two sets to one and had what seemed like a zillion break points in the fourth. But he never could convert, and Chang completed his miracle by winning in five.
Having come so close a year ago, each was pointing to Paris now. Lendl‘s absence from the clay-court circuit provided another bit of incentive. Both Edberg and Becker had a chance, if they played well, to take over the No. 1 ranking.

Edberg didn’t look close to being ready. In his first match, he played Jimmy Arias. For six games, Arias looked like his circa-1983 version, jerking Edberg all over the court. He got to 5-1 40-15, but collapsed. “I blew the two set points at 5-1, and the first thing that flashed through my mind was, Wouldn’t it be something if I ended up blowing the set?” he said later. “Not a great way to think.”
His premonition proved correct. Edberg won the set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-3. Arias knew that Edberg was very vulnerable.

“He plays someone who can return well, he’s going to get beat,” he said. “A good clay-courter will take him.”

The next evening, Edberg came up against a good clay-courter. Juan Aguilera had been ranked seventh in the world late in 1984, at the age of twenty-two. But the next four years had been miserable for him. He had fallen out with his coach Luis Bruguera, and his father had died of cancer. Also, assorted injuries had limited his court time.
But Aguilera, a quiet, sensitive man who played guitar and drums in a Spanish rock group, didn’t give up. He won a small tournament in 1989, his first since the splurge of 1984, and moved back into the top one hundred. The week before Monte Carlo, he moved back into the top forty for the first time in five years, winning the tournament in Nice. In the second round of this tournament, he had won an emotional match from Sergi Bruguera – his old coach’s son. That give him a chance to prove Arias right. And he did just that, beating Edberg in two tiebreaks. Aguilera was too steady for Edberg, who looked impatient and nervous on the big points.
Edberg, who once shrugged off an early-round defeat at Wimbledon by saying, “There’s always another tournament next week,” hardly semed disturbed by this loss.

“I’m just not playing well at the moment,” he said. “I missed too many easy shots, ones I would normally never miss. It’s just a matter of time to get my movement right on clay. This isn’t anything to worry about.”

Ion Tiriac was worried, however, about Boris Becker. In the quarterfinals, Becker looked to be on his way to an easy victory over Emilio Sanchez. he led 6-4 5-3, and had a match point with Sanchez serving. He even got a second serve. Here, though, Becker’s fast-court instincts took over. He went for too much on the return, pushing a forehand deep. Suddenly, Sanchez had life again. He proceeded to win seven of the next eight games – breaking Becker’s serve three times in four tries. On clay, that can happen, even to Becker. To his credit, Becker didn’t quit. He came back to force the final set into a tiebreak but lost it 7-3.
Sitting in the stands watching, Tiriac was not happy. Becker was doing exactly what Tiriac had told him he could not do – playing clay-court tennis. The match had taken nearly three hours. To Tiriac’s way of thinking, that was too long. Becker had to dictate the tone and style of the match, not be dictated to. Already, watching him practice, Tiriac had spoken to Bob Brett about his concern.

“I have told Bob that if Boris keeps playing this way, the entire clay-court season will be a disaster,” Tiriac snorted. “Actually, worse than a disaster. Will Boris listen? Probably not.”

The Sanchez loss seemed to confirm Tiriac’s speech to Brett. Yet Brett knew that trying to convince Becker of that right now would be impossible. He didn’t want to push too hard, too soon. There were still four weeks left before Paris.

Boris Becker, Wimbledon 1985

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

Becker, like Edberg has been around for a long time but is still young. It was not until 1989 that each emerged as a player obviously capable of winning major championships on any surface: to be explicit, on the extremes of grass and clay. In 1989 either could have become the first serve-and-volley specialist to win the French title for more than 20 years. Neither will be content with what he has already achieved, impressive though that is. Their form during the next few years will depend partly on fitness (each has had problems, largely arising from the physical stress the ‘big’ game imposes) and partly on their hunger for success. Ambition is not a constant condition of the human spirit. The flow of even the strongest river is subject to variations of rainfall on the watershed.

So far, Becker’s record has been the more spectacular and has also had wider repercussions? Like Bjorn Borg in Sweden and Guillermo Vilas in Argentina, he became a national hero whose example fired his compatriots and caused an enomous expansion in tennis interest: among players, public, court and equipment manufacturers, sponsors, and a variety of entrepreneurs.
Becker’s triumphs, swiftly followed by those of Steffi Graf, were almost as exciting for television viewers in East Germany, where tennis has been an undeveloped minor sport. Given Becker, Graf and the game’s restoration to Olympic status in 1988, we may assume that what is at present East Germany will be a productive area of growth for tennis in the 1990s.

Becker’s influence has also been considerable – and benefical – in a more senitive area. Germany needed a heroic figure commanding world-wide respect and he took on that role as if born to it. His first Wimbledon championship came 40 years after the end of the Second World War and 45 years after a German bomb had fallen on to a corner of the competitors’ centre court seating area. There was a spice of irony in the fact that Becker’s tennis on that same court dominated television, radio, and newspapers and magazines in his homeland. For most of us the War was only an older genreation’s vague, receding memory, a faint shadow in the mind. But to the German-speaking peoples it remainded a slightly touchy subject. Young though he was, Becker was aware of that: and aware, too that the new Germany needed a paragon? He responded as if all his 17 years had been spent in the diplomatic service. On court, he was an immensely Teutonic sportsman: fair-haired and blue-eyed, big and strong and a fighter to the core. Off court, he was all charm and tact and low-keyed common sense, recognizing the ‘Blond Bomber’ and ‘Blitzkrieg’ headlines as no more than facile metaphors. In short, Becker made Wimbledon history and at the same time did an impressive public relations job for Germany.

Becker’s home is a little more than six miles from Graf’s. They have known each other since childhood, when they often used to hit together and, later, played in the same tournaments. By the age of 12 he was an unusually promising footballer but gave up that game in favor of tennis. At 15 he was West Germany’s junior champion and, in the first round of the boys singles at Wimbledon, was beaten by Edberg – the top seed, who was almost two years older. At 16 Becker left school to play full-time. His potential had been recognized by the national federation’s coach, Gunther Bosch.
Since their childhood at Brasov, which lies at the foot of the transylvanian Alps, Bosch had been associated with Ion Tiriac, an uncommonly smat man with an intimidating presence. Tiriac played Davis Cup tennis for Romania from 1959 to 1977, by which time he knew everybody an all the angles. As coach, then as manager and entrepreneur, he was – and remains – a cute businessman. Tiriac went to Leimen, guaranted Becker’s parents a fat income, and took charge of the lad’s career. Bosch became Becker’s personal coach.

Thus was Becker under new management, so to speak, from 1984 onwards. In April of that year he qualified for Luxembourg’s first grand prix tournament, which was additionally memorable for the fact that there was a dog show in progress and players shared a hotel with thoroughbreds – sometimes audibly restive during the night. On court, Becker’s ferocious hitting raised images of Ivan Lendl. He had two match points against Gene Mayer. Becker qualified for Wimbledon, too, but tore some ankle ligaments when hotly engaged with Bill Scanlon and was carried away on a stretcher. By the end of that year he was already 6ft 2in tall and weighed 12st 8lb (he has since put on about half an inch and half as stone). Just the build, in fact, to take on Wimbledon and the world. Tiriac and Bosch were doing what they could to improve his quickness and agility.

Just before the 1985 Wimbledon, Becker won the Stella Artois tournament at Queen’s Club, suggesting that he could be a future Wimbledon champion. The future was now. Becker beat Hank Pfister in Wimbledon’s first round and observed that he was looking forward to ‘not being a nobody’. Joakim Nystrom and Tim Mayotte in turn took him to five sets and almost beat him. Then Becker got lucky. He did not have to play any of the top three seeds, because Kevin Curen tore through John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in straight sets and Henri Leconte‘s fireworks display reduced Ivan Lendl to dazzled helplessness. By the time the final came round, Curren, who had already done enough to win most Wimbledons, did not have quite enough left. By contrast Becker was still strong, still dreaming the dreams of the young. He was having the time of his life and let us know about it: by joyously punching the air with his fists and giving his celebrated impression of a man cycling down a cobbled street without a bicycle. He was not only the first German champion, the youngest champion, and the first unseeded champion: he was also four months younger than the winner of the boys’ singles, Leonardo Lavalle. Moreover, Becker did it again in 1986, this time with more ease. His last two victims were Leconte and Lendl. Again, neither McEnroe nor Connors crossed his path.

Becker has often said that, as a tennis player, he was born at Wimbledon, that he feels at home there. The tournament changed his life and made him a celebrated millionaire. True, he had to shoulder a championship’s increased responsabilities to the game and did not always welcome the attention he attracted, the erosion of his privacy. ‘But it’s worth paying the price’, he admitted. It has often been suggested that Wimbledon is the easiest Grand Slam tournament for a man to win, because grass permits violently short rallies that make only limited demands on a player’s experience and tactical versatility. On the other hand a Wimbledon championship is the most coveted prize in the game and carries enormous prestige. It follows that, to some extent, Becker achieved too much too soon. He was like a man standing on the top of the Everest and realizing that he had yet to learn the craft of mountaineering.

Becker learned but it took him three years to win another Grand Slam title. Let us remember that, although twice Wimbledon champion, he was only 18 years old – still growing up in the midst of sudden fame and fortune.
In January of 1987, during the Australian championships, Becker’s natural need for more independance – moe time to go his own way, enjoy the company of his girlfriend, and find out what it was like to live an approximation of a normal life – led to a split with Bosch, who was unwilling to accept the part-time role Becker now demanded of him. But Tiriac was always there and Becker could easily pick him out, beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. And by the end of 1987 Franck Dick, a British athletics coach, was making Becker a better all-round athlete and Bob Brett, an Australian coach from the Harry Hopman school, was beginning to make Becker a better tennis player. gradually, Becker came to terms with manhood – and with the kind of tennis played on surfaces far more prevalent than grass. The Davis Cup competition helped, because Becker knew that he was playing for a team, a nation, and simply had to produce the goods – whatever the surface. And he did produce the goods.

The 1988 Davis Cup triumph was followed by a year in which it all came together. On the slow clay of Paris, Becker was narrowly frustrated but proved that he was ready to pass that most difficult of all tests for any player from the serve-and-volley school. And the Becker who regained the Wimbledon championship was a far more mature player than the the Becker of 1985 and 1986. He made a little more history too. In the first set of the final Edberg was taken by storm and scored only 10 points. It was the first 6-0 set in a men’s singles final for 40 years. Moreover, Steffi Graf won the women’s title the same day. Never before had Germands won both singles championships at Wimbledon – and Becker and Graf were to repeat the feat in the United States championships two months later, though Becker had saved two match points (one with the fortuitous intervention of a net cord) in a second round match with Derrick Rostagno.
It was the first time a German had won the US men’s title. Becker is unning out of firsts but will keep coming back for more: especially if his knees and ankles and the soles of his feet are spared an excess of the pounding they get on courts that are both hot and hard.

Becker is a commanding figure and an awfully powerful player. There is a hint of arrogance in the chin-up, icy glare he gives his opponents in the moments between rallies. Off the same toss, he can win any of three sevices: flat, kick, or slice. His forehand is equally fearsome. Becker flings his racket at the ball as if he never expects to see either again. Often, no volley is needed. A similar blazing speed can be evident when he puts top-spin on his backhand, which he usually hits with underspin. His volleys, whether punched or caressed, are like the cursory last spadefuls of soil on the graves of rallies. The pattern of his assault is varied, but the persistent strength of becker’s hitting keeps his opponents under terrible stress. On top of all that there is the bounding athleticism: the huge leaps for overheads, the spectacular falls as he hurls himself into wide volleys, and the quick ease (remarkable in such a big man) with which he moves in behind his service or an early-ball approach shot. And his unquenchable fighting spirit permeates the court like some electric curent.
At the age of 22 Becker began 1990 as the best player in the world.