Tennis: Becker has last word over Stich: Off-court manoeuvring intensifies between Germany's two greatest players and rivals

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The Independent Online
THE capacity crowd was unrestrained in its acclaim. 'Der konig ist zuruck]' was the cry. The king, Boris Becker, indeed is back, and with a bigger entourage than before: father, mother, wife, baby, baby-sitter, coach, assistant coach, physio, agent, bag-carrier.

It should be explained that the capacity crowd amounted to a mere 300, but that was all that a team of eight security guards would allow to squeeze into the practice court adjacent to the Schleyer-Halle, where the three-times Wimbledon champion will make his entrance today in the opening round of the dollars 2.25m ( pounds 1.55m) Eurocard Open.

Outside, some 500 locked-out enthusiasts chanted Becker's name and craned for a glimpse of him. Not a bad reception for a player supposedly way past his best at 26.

Inside the main arena, Alexander Volkov, watched by about 200 early arrivals for the day session, was making pounds 33,800 by advancing to the second round with a 6-2, 6-3 win against Alberto Berasategui, of Spain. The Russian will play Becker, provided the German successfully negotiates a first-round match against a compatriot, David Prinosil.

Becker, having finished practising with Gary Muller, was approached by his coach, Nick Bollettieri, who persuaded him to hit three more service winners against the South African to round things off.

Sunday's successful defence of the Milan championship has given Becker new impetus, and there is even speculation that he can win the 40th title of his career here this week. But not by Becker. 'I'm really surprised the win (in Milan) came this soon,' he said. 'I have no expectations here.' Now he had a young boy at home, he added, the game was still important, but not so important. 'Barbara, he, and I decided to play good tennis.'

If Becker continues to play good tennis, he could end up renewing his keen rivalry with Michael Stich in the quarter-finals. Stich, who has raised himself to No 2 in the world, won the ATP Tour Championship and shouldered German tennis to Davis Cup triumph in Becker's absence, attracted only 15 observers to his practice session - but the arena was packed for Stich's opening match against Wally Masur.

The Australian, whose ability to construct points while others floundered for form took him to the semi-finals of the United States Open last September, capitalised on Stich's shaky opening service game to break for 2-0 but thereafter was outplayed by the German, who won 6-4, 6-3. Stich's second-round opponent is the Russian, Andrei Cherkasov.

Becker and Stich continue to play their game of tit-for-tat off the court. Stich waited for Becker to indicate his Davis Cup plans (he has ruled himself out of the first round, on clay in Austria) before announcing his intention to continue carrying the flag. 'We are in the same situation as last year,' Stich said. 'Whoever wishes to play is welcome and must earn their place in the team.'

Stich has struck a deal with the German Tennis Federation. In return for playing Davis Cup and assisting with the junior programme, the Federation will fund his coaching by the Davis Cup captain, Niki Pilic.

Becker had the last word yesterday. When the day session had ended, he strode on court to practise on the tournament court, catching a couple of security men off guard - they scurried after him to offer protection - and causing the departing audience to return and cheer his every move against Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson. It will be interesting to sample the atmosphere when Becker plays for real.

(Photograph omitted)

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