Tennis: Becker booms on clay: Germany's grass master is imperious in Rome as he strides forward to a final meeting with Sampras

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The Independent Online
HE MAY be the Meisterswinger of Wimbledon but Boris Becker, strangely, is off-key whenever he holds forth on an earthen stage. Curious, when you consider that he grew up on similar terra battuta - red clay - as they call the dirt of Il Foro Italico.

That may be changing, as Becker, holder of three titles at the Big W, thoughtfully spun his way into merely the fourth clay court final of his career yesterday. Never has he won on clay, and never has a German seized the Italian championship (or been in a final), but Becker could turn that around this afternoon.

If the sun-broiled full-house audience of 7,500 yesterday expected typical basso-profondo shotmaking from Becker, they - and Goran Ivanisevic - were jolted as he cleverly played it pianissimo, removing the 1993 runner-up 6-2, 7-6 (7-5).

In the title bout with Becker is the No 1, Pete Sampras, no world-beater as a soil toiler himself, though he has taken one clay title. The Pete Beat went on as he recorded a 26th straight match win, pricking the bubble of the unknown spoiler, Slava Dosedel of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-2, in little over an hour. 'It was easy - after all he'd done he was too nervous,' Sampras said.

Dosedel, a 51st-ranked 23-year-old who has never played so well, was the unseeded odd man in, before his parade through the seeds ended at the semis. Before it was over, though, the crafty Czech had bounced the No 11 Arnaud Boetsch from match game down; the No 6 Andrei Medvedev, the bearish victor at Monte Carlo; and - the season stunner - Jim Courier, the 1992 and 1993 champ, and world No 3. After losing the first five games on Friday night, Dosedel wrecked Courier's bid to become the only man to win the Italian thrice consecutively, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Ivanisevic, feeling stranded and parched in a crimson Sahara for a half-hour during which he could hardly score a point, turned out to be a soft touch for Becker's even softer stuff.

Becker awakened Rome nine years ago with his artillery. Only 17, he belted balls with such concussion that, naturally, he became 'Boom Boom' Boris in print and on TV. By contrast, yesterday Becker constantly changed length, speed and spin to keep Ivanisevic puzzled. Sporadically the German would rip a big serve or forehand, occasionally charge the net. But most of the time he was content to rally and let Ivanisevic gorge on errors.

'I thought I got back into it good,' said Ivanisevic, who turned on the power when he lagged 0-3 in the second and faced two break points. Despite Becker's seven-game trot from 2-2, Ivanisevic weathered the 30-minute drought. He cancelled the two break-points in the fourth game of the second with an ace and a roaring smash, held on, and caught up at 4-4 with a zinging backhand pass.

'Finally,' he groaned later, 'I was in it.' After 64 minutes he had broken Becker's serve.

But history wasn't with Ivanisevic. 'We have matches with exciting finishes,' he said. 'This time I thought it was my turn.' It wasn't. This, their ninth engagement (with Becker leading 5-3, 4-0 in tie-breakers) was decided by another overtime, as two of Becker's previous wins had been. 'I seem to play my best in the tie-breaks against Goran,' said the victor, who did just that, even though he was behind four points to two after bungling a forehand.

Ivanisevic did the same, and Becker got to 5-4 with a nifty volley and a service winner. Ivanisevic delivered his eighth ace to 5-5, but that was his farewell. He botched a backhand, and Becker rang down the curtain in a rousing solo of the sort that Wimbledon patrons are accustomed to: a stunning backhand volley.

(Photograph omitted)