Tennis: Becker has a last throw of the dice

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WHEN BORIS BECKER made his debut at the United States Open in 1985, spectators marvelled at his disregard for injury as he dived about the concrete courts. Now American crowds, in common with others elsewhere, are simply pleased to see old "Boom-Boom" fit enough to be able to stand up and play.

The 31-year-old German did not let anybody down in the opening round of the Lipton Championships here on Thursday night, least of all himself. Fears that sudden injury or illness would cause him to withdraw, as on so many occasions in recent times, proved groundless. Becker was even able to steady himself after an ominous second set against Gianluca Pozzi to defeat the Italian left-hander, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

"I was praying this afternoon that I'm able to go out on the court; nothing is going to happen, no virus," Becker said. "I'm very glad to be able to finish the match on the court, and even better to have won through the first round."

The relief was understandable. It was Becker's first ATP Tour singles match in the United States since an opening round loss against the Spaniard Carlos Costa at Indian Wells, California, in March 1996 (Becker, then ranked No 4 in the world, is currently No 78), and his first appearance at the Lipton since 1994, when he was defeated by Andre Agassi in the third round.

Becker had played only one singles match previously this year, a first- round loss to Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman in Dubai on 9 February. Among a trail of disappointments was Becker's withdrawal from the singles competition at the Guardian Direct Cup at Battersea Park, London, after losing in the doubles. While accepting that Becker is semi-retired, even his staunchest supporters began to lose patience with his unreliability.

It is not as if Becker lacks a goal, having set his mind on finishing his playing career with one last appearance at Wimbledon, where we imagined that the three-times champion's valediction was part of the archive footage from 1997. "I'm going to retire this summer," he reminded us after the Pozzi match. "Until then, I want to give it a good show. I want to prepare myself for my last Grand Slam. I think that's enough reason for me to work hard again and to prepare myself as a professional."

His nostalgia for Wimbledon took hold at Christmas. "I was thinking about what I was going to do," Becker said, "whether to prepare myself for Davis Cup, which last year was the reason that I continued playing. But Davis Cup could be very long. We have a strong team with [Nicolas] Kiefer and [Tommy] Haas. The chances are that we will be in the semi- finals. Then it's October. It was something I didn't want to do. I decided to stop this summer because my wife is expecting my second baby. I thought that it was a good moment for me to call it all off." And where better than Wimbledon, "to finish my career where it really started for me. Hopefully I'll be able to walk out there again and play good tennis."

Becker may have a better idea of his ability to trade shots with the rising generation after his second-round match here against Marat Safin, the 19-year-old Russian whose power was a feature of the French Open at Roland Garros last year. Becker expressed surprise at beating Pozzi, a 33-year-old journeyman who has done well to keep his ranking as high as No 69. "Pozzi plays every week; he's used to tough matches," Becker said, "but I was able to play well on the big points, which is rare when you play so little. I was able to pull it off at four-all in the third set. That was the key."

En route to the All England Club, Becker plans to play on the concrete courts of Hong Kong and Tokyo and then switch to the clay in Munich and Rome before setting foot on grass at the Stella Artois Championships at the Queen's Club, London, in preference to the German lawns at Halle. "This year I'll do it the old-fashioned way," he said, smiling.

To set the tone, Becker treated the Lipton organisers an old-fashioned apology. "I think I owe something to the tournament," he said. "They've been having a hard time with me the last couple of years. I think I paid them back tonight."