Tennis: Becker struggles through as top seeds fall

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With top 10 players tumbling out in rapid succession from the richest tournament in the world yesterday, Boris Becker squeezed into the quarter- finals of the Grand Slam Cup in Munich by outlasting the Frenchman Cedric Pioline. Becker easily won the first set but then had to battle hard to win 6-1, 6-7, 9-7.

While Becker, ranked No. 4 in the world, advanced to the last eight and made sure of earning at least $250,000 (pounds 160,000), Thomas Muster (No 3) and Michael Chang (No 5) were eliminated.

Muster, the French Open champion, at least went home $350,000 richer - a $250,000 bonus for winning one of the Grand Slam events of the season, plus $100,000 given to all first-round losers here.

The Zimbabwean Byron Black, ranked No 40 in the world, beat Muster 7- 6, 2-6, 6-1. Black, like Pioline qualified only after the withdrawal of Andre Agassi and the 1992 winner Michael Stich, who are both injured.

Jacco Eltingh, a Dutch doubles specialist who is ranked No 43, beat Chang 7-6, 6-3, with an aggressive game on the fast carpet surface.

The tournament invites 16 players with the best records in the four Grand Slam events in a year - the Australian, French and US Opens and Wimbledon - and the winner will receive $1.625m. It is played under Grand Slam rules, which means there is no tie-break in the decisive set.

Becker, a three-times Wimbledon champion who won the ATP World Championship in Frankfurt last month, easily won the first set against Pioline. But Pioline picked up his game in the second set and clinched the tie-break.

Becker wasted two break points in the 11th game of the third set, but he still managed to break for 8-7 with a brilliant forehand passing shot down the line.

After two successive aces, Becker had earned three match points. Pioline saved one, but the German blasted his 14th ace to finish the match. The outcome resembled Becker's quarter-final victory over Pioline at Wimbledon this year, where he squandered a two-set lead and then won 9-7 in the fifth.

"I played the first set like a world champion, but then he found his timing, he began to serve well and it became close," said Becker, who was cheered by a sell-out crowd of 11,000 in the city where he now lives when he is in Germany.

Muster was slowed by blisters on his left foot and a tight hip muscle and said the carpet surface and the balls were too fast.

Black is the first beneficiary of the Grand Slam Development Fund to play at the tournament. The Grand Slam Cup pays $2m annually to the fund that helps young players and the game worldwide.

Black was helped by the fund, which paid for him to travel to junior tournaments, work with a coach and attend a tennis academy. "They have really helped me and guided me in my game," he said.

Fresh from anchoring America to victory over Russia in the Davis Cup final in Moscow over the weekend, Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon and US Open champion, begins his campaign here today against a fellow American Patrick McEnroe.

In other matches today, Todd Martin, who helped Sampras win the key Davis Cup doubles on Sunday, plays Sergi Bruguera, Andrei Medvedev meets Aaron Krickstein while Renzo Furlan will be up against Yevgeny Kafelnikov.