Becker's break in tradition

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The Independent Online
First Jurgen Klinsmann, now Boris Becker - dramatic injuries to two of Germany's sporting superstars within the space of a week. Klinsmann may yet recov- er to play a part in tonight's Wem- bley final, but on No 1 Court last Friday Becker's dreams of its Wimbledon equivalent were shattered in the split-second that Nev- ille Godwin's serve caught the rim of the German's racket and jar- red his right wrist so severely that a chipped bone was feared.

Becker was a relieved man yesterday after it was diagnosed he had damaged tendons in the wrist. He will spend four weeks in plaster and hopes to be fit to play in the United States Open in late August. For a tennis player it is, self-evidently, a dreaded injury. "I knew it was serious as soon as it happened," Becker reflected ruefully in the interview room after he had been forced to withdraw.

Watching his glazed blue eyes in that windowless room, Becker was obviously troubled in mind as well as body. Behind him as part of the backdrop to the interview desk was a picture of his younger self, diving full-length at Wimbledon to recover a volley. But this injury will beg the question of just how effective Becker can be again. The physical healing will be a less arduous process than allowing himself to trust the wrist as of old because once a sportsman is betrayed by his body his mind will begin a whispering campaign.

The timing of Becker's injury could not have been more wret- ched. He seemed to have rediscovered the form that took him to the Wimbledon final last year, and which also saw him win the Australian Open in January followed by his recent victory in the Stella Artois at Queen's. He certainly had his eyes on this, his most cherished of prizes. "Wimbledon is the highlight of my year," the three-times champion said. "I was one of the few who had a serious chance of winning the thing. I was playing great tennis and the draw didn't look too bad."

Indeed, with the earlier fall of such seeds as Jim Courier, Yev- geny Kafelnikov and Thomas Enqvist from Becker's half of the draw, he seemed to have a clear route to the final. Yet Becker's response to the injury went deep- er than rueing a lost opportunity. His gallant battle against Pete Sampras last year and the Australian win had clearly fuelled a belief that he could add another Wimbledon title to his name for the purposes of posterity, the grizzled veteran seeing off the young pups one more time.

There were signs of this elemental battle in the 12 games he contested with Godwin before injury cut him down. Becker had arrived on court at a measured pace, the laces in his tennis shoes still undone as though he was just popping down to the corner shop for his papers. While Godwin was all nervous energy before the toss-up, Becker took his time to don a new wrist-band and tie his laces before consenting to join his opponent and the umpire at the net.

And in the fateful, unfinished set, the contrast between the "old" tennis that Becker played - heavy serve, half-court volleys - and the "new", fitness regime-based, all-court game which the 21-year-old Godwin represented, you sensed the future nibbling at the past.

"I thought Boris was struggling with his serve; it wasn't coming through," the South African qualifier said afterwards. "And he looked like he was struggling with his movement from side to side." Youthful arrogance may disqualify the total validity of this testimony, but it did offer an insight into the all-action tennis which this new generation sees as its style.

Nobody would be foolish enough to write off someone with Becker's deep reservoir of competitiveness, but he will be 29 when he returns to Wimbledon next year, injury permitting. On Thursday, Stefan Edberg, Becker's opponent in three successive finals between 1988 and 1990, played his last Wimbledon game before retirement at 30. "I don't want to call the evening before the day is out," Becker said poetically of his prospects of recovery. But when he heard his wrist "pop", it may also have been tennis's equivalent of "time's winged chariot" sending him a message.