Tennis: Becker ups the tempo

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BORIS BECKER took a step closer to his compatriot Michael Stich yesterday, at least in terms of their projected appointment in the quarter-finals of the Eurocard Open. Stich, the world No 2, remains a dozen places ahead of his rival in the rankings, if not in the affection of the German public.

Two Russians stand between the former Wimbledon champions and the match the nation wants to see. Becker has defeated Alexander Volkov in all eight of their previous matches, though their last three meetings on carpet have gone the distance. Stich and Andrei Cherkasov are level, 1-1, the German having won their previous match on carpet in straight sets en route to winning the title here a year ago.

With expectation running so high on one side of the net, it was hardly surprising that Becker should take only 73 minutes to dispatch another compatriot, David Prinosil, 6-1, 6-4, in the first round yesterday. 'Boom-Boom's' reputation alone may have been enough to unnerve the 20-year- old qualifier without the additional pressure of an excited crowd breathing down his neck with only one result in their minds.

Becker has performed much better, but has also played far worse. His errors, including five double-faults, enabled Prinosil, ranked No 117, to create two break points in each set, but there was never any doubt where the mastery lay.

His last match on a German court lasted 24 minutes longer, but Becker would prefer to forget the straight-sets defeat by Wayne Ferreira in the opening round of the Grand Slam Cup in Munich in December. By then, Stich had established himself as the ATP Tour champion, and the top dog in Germany.

'I was in really bad shape at the end of last year,' Becker said, 'and I had a choice of giving up or having a really good go at it, and I chose the latter. I'm the kind of guy that does something fully, or not at all.'

Before Becker arrived on court, Brad Gilbert, the only American in the draw, had travelled from Memphis, where he lost Sunday's final against Todd Martin, and had been beaten in straight sets by Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the latest Russian prospect.

The 32-year-old Gilbert, who has won more than dollars 5m ( pounds 3.4m) in prize-money without even making a pretence of star status, made some interesting observations about Becker yesterday.

'He's still a young guy; it just seems like he's lived nine lives,' Gilbert said. 'He's real complex and I think he lets a lot of variables affect the way he goes, like all the funny comments he makes about situations. He didn't go to college, but he talks about world peace, and he talks about this, and he talks about that. He ought to be geared towards tennis and just keep to talking about tennis.

'He's 26, and I feel like 26 is the prime of your career. For me, 26 to 28 are the three optimum years when a player reaches his most mature level. It's up to him if he wants to get it together.'

Stefan Edberg advanced to the quarter-finals with a 7-6, 6-1 win against Jason Stoltenberg. the young Australian was going well until blitzed 7-0 in the tie-break.

A parting shot from Gilbert - 'the way I see it, Sampras and Courier are on a higher level than Edberg and Becker were three or four years ago' - may help to concentrate European minds.