Tennis: Becker needs new drive on a bumpy ride

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WHILE Flushing Meadow was preparing for Jimmy Connors's 40th birthday tonight - the usual bash on Centre Court at the United States Open - the second oldest player in the men's singles draw came and went. For Kevin Curren, 34, a first-round match against Boris Becker yesterday was yet another reminder of what might have been.

The South African-born Curren first encountered Becker seven years ago in a Wimbledon final writ large in history, the 17-year-old German defeating him in four sets to become the youngest men's singles champion. Curren was then in his prime. The previous year, 1984, he had been runner-up to Mats Wilander in the Australian Open.

He has not been so close to a Grand Slam tournament triumph in the intervening years, but his big-serving game still causes sufficient problems for his rivals on the tour for him to merit a world ranking of 81. Andre Agassi's first defeat as the Wimbledon champion (his outfit featured the All England Club's green and purple when he defeated Mikael Pernfors 6-2, 6-4, 6-1 yesterday) was at the hands of Curren in Washington.

The fact that Becker, the younger by 10 years, was able to continue his uninterrupted domination of Curren in their fifth meeting, winning 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, was less important to the game at large than the latest bulletin on the German's desire for further success.

His seeding at No 7 here is a clear indication of how much his form has slipped in the past 18 months, and there is a body of opinion that he will not add to his five Grand Slam singles titles.

'At the end of last year I was tired of tennis, basically,' he said. 'I had won all the major tournaments. I had reached my goal. This summer I started to train more and tried to be more into it. Not being able to play in Paris (because of injury) hurt me a lot. Since then I have found a joy again, and the drive, and I think that it shows on the court.'

If it does, it is only sporadic. Yesterday he hit more erratic shots than impressive winners, particularly in the second set, which will be remembered for a spectacular volley Curren delivered from behind his back.

'He is still in good shape,' Becker said, 'and every time we play it is a very tense match. It was a pretty good match for me. I had to work hard, but not for four hours, and I had to play under pressure, but not constantly.'

While the amazing Connors seems to be able to go on for ever, Becker points out that it is becoming more difficult for the present generation to maintain their standards. 'When Jimmy was 25, he couldn't lose to most guys in the first couple of matches,' he said, 'whereas now you have so many strong players, young or old. Not everybody is like Jimmy Connors. He was always a guy with a lot of drive and a lot of fire.'

As Becker said, it is tough at the top. Around midnight on Monday, Jim Courier's coaches, Jose Higueras and Brad Stein, exchanged concerned glances. The world No 1 was having difficulty against Alex O'Brien, ranked 185 and here on a wild card as the national collegiate champion.

The two coaches know O'Brien well, having assisted him in their work for the United States Tennis Association. Courier is also familiar with the 22-year-old Texan, who defeated him once in their junior days ('Our matches were much like this one: stuck on the baseline, running each other ragged,' Courier recalled).

Courier was often made to look the more ragged here, the crowd responding heartily to the possibility of a major upset. Even after Courier took a 6-2 lead in a fourth-set tie-break, he still required four match points to end the contest, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3, 7-6. 'No gimmees anywhere, unfortunately,' Courier said.

While this applies increasingly in the men's game, the leading female players generally advance to the latter stages without too many scares. Anke Huber is proving an exception. Defeated by Britain's Jo Durie in the second round of the French Open, the 17-year-old German became the first seed eliminated here, losing yesterday to Sabine Appelmans, 6-3, 6-4 (she was followed by Conchita Martinez, No 8, and Jana Novotna, 10, who lost to Ann Grossman and Ros Fairbank-Nideffer respectively).

Huber, seeded 11, had anticipated a difficult opening match against the Belgian, ranked 21, but had fancied her chances in the succeeding rounds. 'I think I had a good draw,' she said. 'By the second round I think it was very good.' It is to be hoped this arouses the competitive instinct in Clare Wood, Britain's sole survivor, who meets Appelmans next.

Jennifer Capriati, the Olympic champion, was shaken by Nicole Muns-Jagerman, who led 5-1 in the opening set, the sixth seed recovering to win, 7-6, 6-2, much to the relief of the spectators.

Linda Harvey-Wild, it may be remembered, caused one of the minor sensations of the British summer by defeating Martina Navratilova in the second round of the Pilkington tournament at Eastbourne. She was unable to ruffle Gabriela Sabatini yesterday, the 1990 champion winning 6-1, 6-2. Not even the clatter of a falling parasol disturbed the fourth-seeded Argentinian.

(Photograph omitted)