Tennis: Becker slips back into old style

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The Independent Online
BORIS BECKER returned "home" to the Stella Artois Championships here yesterday and made a winning start to what will be one of his last tournaments in an illustrious 14-year career.

The 31-year-old German beat Petr Korda, 6-4, 6-4, in a manner that belied the fact that he has not competed on grass for nearly a year, but then played down his chances in this tournament and at Wimbledon, which starts a week on Monday.

"At this stage I have to concentrate, match to match," Becker said. "Everyone knows that I'm going to retire in the summer, but I wanted to come back here, to where I started, where I first won." Becker memorably won the Queen's title as a teenager in his first attempt in 1985 and then made history by becoming the youngest Wimbledon champion a few weeks later, aged 17.

In this, his last year as a professional, he will be hoping to eclipse John McEnroe's four Queen's titles by taking a record fifth to add to those he won in 1985, '87, '88 and '96. He now meets last year's winner, Scott Draper of Australia, in the second round, the defending champion having progressed yesterday, 7-6, 7-6, past Oren Motevassel of Israel.

"Grass is the only surface I can go on to and play well straight away," Becker said after beating Korda, a fact clearly illustrated by the sharpness of his performance. He broke the Czech's serve in the first game of both sets and then produced some fine backhand shots to press home the advantage.

Although the urgency of yesteryear was less intense, the German always looked as if he knew he would win and he appeared ready to step up a notch if it had been necessary. It rarely was, but one shot in the sixth game of first set epitomised his reserves. Leading 3-2 and serving, Becker saved a break point and then went on to take the game with an adroit backhand lob at full stretch. He never looked back.

Can he really be a serious contender at Wimbledon? "I'd rather talk about Queen's," he said, but he admitted that he had made a trip this week to SW19.

"To get the smell of the place," he said. As if to signal that there might be more than a whiff of resurgence among the game's older players - following Andre Agassi's and Steffi Graf's wins at the French Open - the 28-year-old Jim Courier joined Becker in progressing here yesterday, disposing of the Dane, Kenneth Carlsen, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1. Courier now meets Karol Kucera of Slovakia in the second round.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski both hope to open their Stella accounts against Americans today, with the former facing Cecil Mamiit, and the latter up against Paul Goldstein, a player who is ranked 111 in the world but who surprisingly beat him at the Australian Open in January. Despite there being no Tim 'n' Greg show yesterday, partisan fans did not go without a duo of home wins to cheer. Chris Wilkinson, the British No 3, came from a set down to beat Takao Suzuki of Japan, 4-6, 7-6, 6-1. His next opponent will be Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian teenager.

Martin Lee, the British No 6 and ranked 369 in the world, also came from a set down, against the Swede Michael Tillstrom, ranked 134, to win a tight contest 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. Lee lost 9-7 in the first-set tie-break but made amends by winning the second sets decider 7-4.

"When I won that in the second, I really knew I was going to win the third," he said.

It was a good day all round, then, for those playing `at home'.