Tennis: Becker finds it hard to be at regal best

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IT IS NOT every day that a commercial presentation opens with, "Your Serene Highness, ladies and gentleman..." or that the Serene Highness actually demonstrates the product, as did Prince Albert of Monaco with Andre Agassi's titanium racket on Court No 7 at the $2.45m Monte Carlo Open.

Yesterday was for aristocrats. Prince Albert played ball with Agassi, Bjorn Borg and Henri Leconte before Agassi signed a contract extending his racket deal with Head by three years, which may help take the American's mind off splitting dollars with his ex-wife, Brooke Shields.

It was then the semi-retired Boris Becker's turn to take centre stage for his 13th, and probably last, Monte Carlo event. It is fair to say that the 31-year-old German, a monarch on every court except clay, had a harder time than Prince Albert before advancing to the second round with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 win against Cedric Pioline, last year's runner-up.

Becker and Pioline split four sets practising together for the tournament, but deep down the Frenchman may have sensed that a ninth consecutive defeat by Becker awaited him. During his interview, Pioline was comforted by a compatriot, who said, "One day, you will beat him." "I'd better hurry," Pioline responded.

At least Pioline won a set off Becker this time, which is more than he had achieved in their five previous matches on clay. Their epic encounter was on grass at Wimbledon in the 1995 quarter-finals, when Pioline, playing from the baseline, lost the opening two sets, won the next two after tie- breaks, only to be edged out in the fifth set, 9-7.

Yesterday Becker had enough chances to have won in straight sets. Having recovered from 0-2 in the second set, the German was unable to convert any of three break points for 5-4. Pioline then appeared to have taken control in the final set, but he paid for missing a point for 4-1. "At 3-0, I felt that he already thought he'd won," Becker said, having frustrated the Frenchman with shots to the lines for victory after two hours and 33 minutes. Becker now plays Jerome Golmard, who is about to supplant Pioline as the French No 1.

Becker, three times a finalist at Monte Carlo, plans to end his playing career at the Mercedes Cup clay court tournament in Stuttgart in July, after one last tilt at Wimbledon. His wife, Barbara, is expecting their second child in August. "I'm probably the best player who never won a clay court tournament... at the moment," he said.

Before arriving in Monte Carlo, Becker was defeated by Agassi in the final of the Salem Open on a concrete court in Hong Kong. The pair are drawn to meet in the third round here, provided Becker overcomes Golmard and Agassi, the No 7 seed, wins his second-round match against Arnaud Di Pasquale, a French wild card.

After wielding the titanium racket for his sponsors yesterday, Agassi reiterated that he did not intend to let the break- up of his marriage affect his career. "We are still close and love each other tremendously, but the marriage is over," he said. "Our reasons are our reasons, and they will remain private. But this is not a tragedy, and I have no regrets at all.

"Brooke was so supportive of me through our marriage. She always wanted for me what I want for myself, and that's still the case, even though we are no longer married."

Goran Ivanisevic made a rapid departure, outplayed in the opening round by Hicham Arazi, of Morroco, 6-1, 6-4. Marat Safin, the promising young Russian, attempted to belt every ball, but too many missed the target and he was picked off by Germany's Tommy Haas, 6-4, 6-2.

After a first-round bye Tim Henman, the No 3 seed, is due to open today with a second-round match against Brazil's Fernando Meligeni, ranked No 51. The British No 1 loosened up yesterday with a doubles win, partnering the Frenchman Olivier Delaitre against Golmard and Arnaud Clement.

Those who remember Borg winning his first tournament here - and making an abortive comeback in 1991 with the same wooden racket - marvel at the technical developments in the sport. The latest innovation in use this week is for points to be recorded on the ATP Tour's internet site direct from the umpire's fingers on a palm-top computer.