Tennis: Becker's exit concerns organisers

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The Independent Online
HAVING billed Boris Becker above the home heroes, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, on the gates of Battersea Park, the organisers of the pounds 510,000 Guardian Direct Cup will "think twice" before agreeing to give the semi- retired former Wimbledon champion a wild card next year.

Becker withdrew from the first round of the singles event yesterday because of a viral infection after losing in the doubles on Monday night. It was to have been the German's first appearance in a singles match in Britain since losing to Pete Sampras in the 1997 Wimbledon quarter-finals.

His countryman, Rainer Schuttler, was only yards away from departure at Heathrow airport when the promoters managed to recall him as a lucky loser from the qualifying to take Becker's place last night against Karol Kucera, the No 5 seed. Otherwise they would not have had a singles contest to follow Tim Henman's match against Jan Kroslak on the Centre Court.

It was not only Becker's exit here that perturbed the organisers, but his reputation for withdrawing from tournaments. The 31-year-old Becker, ranked No 77 in the world, lost his only match so far this year, against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman in Dubai. He then pulled out of last week's Rotterdam tournament after hurting his back while practising in Dubai.

Last year Becker defeated Henman in the first round in Dubai and then withdrew because of a pulled stomach muscle. He was unable to fulfil an engagement in Scottsdale, Arizona, because of a back injury, and withdrew from the Lipton, in Florida, because of flu.

As the season moved on, Becker openly campaigned as the figurehead for a group proposing to run an alternative professional circuit to the ATP Tour, emphasising the virtues of player commitment, among other things.

In October, however, Becker was praised for giving his wild card for the Vienna tournament to Sampras, which helped the American's drive to a record sixth consecutive year as the world No 1.

That gesture was of little consolation to the Battersea organisers, who are striving to establish their indoor event, which is in its second year. Asked if a wild card would be waiting for Becker next year, the tournament director, Patricio Apey, said: "Maybe yes, maybe no. This will make us think twice. It's the first time it has happened here, and it's his health." The tournament doctor, Dr George Taggart, examined Becker and diagnosed gastroenteritis.

"It's not as if Becker said anything malicious against the tournament," Apey added, "and he did play doubles last night." Apey revealed, however, that when Becker asked for a wild card for the doubles to accompany the one granted for the singles, they witheld it until he turned up.

It was suggested to Apey that cynics might take the view that promoters were prepared to give Becker wild cards for tournaments, use the publicity, and not care whether he played or not. "That couldn't be further from the truth," Apey said. "Even when Boris was in the top five in the world he was one of the players who pulled out of more tournaments than most. We are as disappointed as everybody else. He's a big part of the recent history of tennis. That's why people give him wild cards."

Becker was not the only player with stomach problems yesterday. A pasty faced Jan-Michael Gambill, who had been ill since arriving from a tournament in Memphis at the weekend, was dispatched in his opening match by Italy's Davide Sanguinetti, 6-4, 6-4.

Gambill defeated Sanguinetti in straight sets when drafted into the United States Davis Cup team for last year's semi-final against Italy in Milwaukie, and the 21-year-old from Spokane is expected to be in the team to play Britain in Birmingham at Easter.

"All I know is that Todd Martin is on the team for sure," Gambill, the American No 5, said. "I have spoken to Tom [Gullikson, the captain] and it is a possibility I'll be on the team."

Gambill, ranked No 44, has won both of his matches against Henman, the British No 1. "They've both been really close," Gambill said, "the last one was 7-6 in the third set. We both serve big, and on those occasions I was just able to make returns a bit better than he did."

With his leading countrymen, Sampras and Agassi, again declining to play in the Davis Cup, Gambill was asked if he thought it would help if world ranking points were awarded for the event.

"I think that's ridiculous," he said. "I don't think that's what the Davis Cup is about. It never has been, and we've got the centennial coming up. It just isn't the way it should be. Players play because they love the game and because they want to play for their country. That's like giving money out for the Olympics instead of gold medals. It's silly. If you don't want to play, you don't want to play."

Goran Ivanisevic, who was the Wimbledon runner-up for the third time last July, failed to advance beyond the second round for the second year at Battersea. The No 7 seed was defeated by the gifted Moroccan Hicham Arazi, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Martina Hingis, the world No 1, wasted no time reaching the quarter- finals of the Paris Indoor Open yesterday, racing to a 6-1, 6-1 victory over the Yugoslav Sandra Nacuk in just 41 minutes.

BATTERSEA DETAILS

GUARDIAN DIRECT CUP (Battersea Park, London) Singles, first round: D Sanguinetti (It) bt J-M Gambill (US) 6-4 6-4 Second round: T Enqvist (Swe) bt D Prinosil (Ger) 6-4 7-5; R Krajicek (Neth) bt N Kiefer (Ger) 6-3 6-4; H Arazi (Mor) bt G Ivanisevic (Croa) 3-6 6-3 6-4. Doubles, first round: D Adams and J De Jager (SA) bt W Arthurs (Aus) and J Tarango (US) 7-5 6-4.

ORDER OF PLAY

Centre Court (start 10:30am): D Sanguinetti (It) v T Johansson (Swe); Y Kafelnikov (Rus) v B Black (Zim); G Raoux (Fr) v R Schuttler (Ger) or K Kucera (Slovak); G Ivanisevic (Croa) and N Kiefer (Ger) v Y Kafelnikov (Rus) and D Vacek (Cz Rep); P Korda (Cz Rep) v G Rusedski (GB); D Hrbaty (Slovak) v J Kroslak (Slovak) or T Henman (GB).

Court One (start 3:00pm): P Galbraith (US) and P Haarhuis (Neth) or B Black (Zim) and W Ferreira (SA) v T Carbonell (Sp) and C Haggard (SA); J Eagle and A Florent (Aus) v D Adams and J-L De Jager (SA).

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