Tennis: Becker finds the lure endures

TO THE locals, the big question at the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart was which of the German players would prove himself the nation's No 1. Would it be Nicolas Kiefer or Tommy Haas? Neither, as it turned out.

Germany's No 1 remains the man they call Der Alte Lowe, The Old Lion. Boris Becker may no longer be his country's leading performer in terms of world ranking but his return to the fray in Stuttgart wowed the country's headline writers and brooked no dispute about who is the sentimental front runner. "The Old Man Calls The Tune"; "Becker Has A Lot Of Bite Left"; "Just Like Old Times For Boris"; "Once More, The Becker Fist".

Becker will be 31 next month. We are far down the road now from the dazzling days of a Wimbledon championship at the age of 17 in 1985, from the six Grand Slam titles and the career total of 49 tournament victories. But, as he showed here, Boris remains capable of defeating top-10 players when the mood is on him. Not bad for someone who has been in semi-retirement for the best part of 18 months.

However, the conditions need to be right. Boris has always preferred indoor tennis, where intrusive factors like sun and wind do not apply. Thirty of his 49 titles have been won in halls, by some distance the best record of anyone still in the game. To be playing in Germany helps, too, since the crowd can safely be relied upon. So there has been more than a touch of Boris-induced euphoria inside Stuttgart's Schleyer Halle over the past few days.

Though clearly delighted, Becker has steadfastly declined to be borne away on enthusiasm's tidal wave. For one thing, there are already several broad avenues of business opportunity opening invitingly for Germany's favourite sporting icon. Also, he knows well enough that the playing days are narrowing down, as the line goes in "September Song", to a precious few.

This year Becker has played just 24 singles matches (won 15, lost nine) and reached one final, on clay in Gstaad. An ankle injury in July sidelined him for the best part of three months. His return at Basle, the tournament won by Tim Henman, lasted just one match. Next came the episode of the wild card into the Vienna tournament, awarded to Becker but generously handed over by him to a Pete Sampras in urgent need of points to protect his No 1 ranking.

And so to Stuttgart, which he entered with the comment that his physical condition reminded him of "a balloon losing air". There was almost no comeback from the ankle injury. "It was tough enough to be out for two months. If it had gone on for six months I couldn't have coped, it would have been too long. It was difficult to play again because the muscles didn't work anywhere and my ankle still hurt."

After beating the world No 4, Carlos Moya, and losing narrowly to Goran Ivanisevic, Becker was in relaxed and conversational mood. "My body hurts but the heart is still young. I didn't expect too much because of the strength of the field but the way I have played gives me great satisfaction. To win against one of the world's best is motivation enough for me.

"Tennis is something I love and hopefully I can do this sort of thing a few more times. But to try and improve my ranking [he is 67th] would be very foolish. Actually, I am surprised to be ranked where I am.

"I didn't stop playing full time because I wasn't good enough any more, but because I didn't want to be travelling for 45 weeks of the year. But I definitely miss the excitement and the involvement. It was a big part of my life and I have very much enjoyed coming back and doing well.

"That's why I am still here. As long as I have chances against the world's best, then it's still fun. Whether you win at 17, 25 or 31 it's always nice, always good to annoy a few players now and again."

One of Becker's close friends summed up the ongoing involvement with tennis thus: "Boris could, of course, indulge his love for the game by hitting a few balls with his wife Barbara and his son Noah, but the thrill is bigger to go on court with Sampras and company."

Becker will be indulging that thrill over the next two weeks, with appearances at the Paris and Stockholm tournaments. That takes him to the end of the '98 season, but what of '99? "I am in the process of making some playing commitments for next year but I haven't decided 100 per cent yet where they are going to be."

This may perhaps be because Becker, as ever, has difficulty fitting his life into the 24 hours which each day allocates him. The queue for his services stretches right round the block and already the number of off- court involvements is huge.

He is the team manager of Germany's Davis Cup squad. Carl-Uwe Steeb, an old friend, is the non-playing captain but Boris runs the show, in charge of planning, picking the team and even, as he did this year, playing in the doubles.

Becker is also in charge of a squad of German 16- and 17-year-olds, from which Kiefer has already graduated to the senior circuit. The present crop have improved so dramatically that they are all assured of direct entry to the junior event at the next Grand Slam, the Australian Open in January. That junior squad is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, with whom Becker has many connections. He appears in their commercials (most famously with Mika Hakkinen) and has two sales outlets for Mercedes in the former East Germany.

The influence of Becker in the German Tennis Federation (DTB) is profound. In February Claus Stauder will stand down after 14 years as the president. The job was offered to Becker and, though he turned it down because of his other commitments, he will decide who Stauder's replacement should be. "Boris is looking for the next president and he has one in mind," said one DTB member. "He will always have as much influence as he wants."

Perhaps most importantly of all, Becker has established his own management company, which has already come up with radical ideas to take over and reform men's tennis and its TV coverage.

On that subject Becker had this to say in Stuttgart: "A lot of people are saying many, many things. Not everything is true. I am not going to add more fuel to that particular fire right now. I am here this week to play the game, not to talk about how it should be run."

On the question of playing, there exist in Germany people who think Becker should cease mixing business with the hitting of tennis balls. Hans-Jurgen Pohmann, a former German Davis Cup player and now a TV commentator, said: "I had a fight with Boris over this. I asked him: 'Are you a team manager or a player? You cannot be both.' When he played like he did this week it's OK but I don't think it's a good idea to treat the sport as a tourist. He won't always play as well as he did here in Stuttgart.

"In my opinion he shouldn't do it. Boris is the outstanding guy in Germany. There will never be another one like him."

Becker himself feels his work with the junior squad could pay rich dividends. "I am convinced our young group will make their mark, but we have to give them time. Obviously the shadow of Michael [Stich] and myself is quite large. It is not easy to produce a world No 1 or a Grand Slam winner every five years. But they have the talent and the potential. Hopefully they have the desire, too, to go all the way."

Just like Der Alte Lowe.

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