Tennis: Becker's struggle to find his feet on clay: Former Wimbledon champion tells John Roberts in Monte Carlo how a virus has stymied his plan to return to No 1

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The Independent Online
THE opulence of a salon at the Hotel de Paris, a room with a tempting view of the casino, was the setting for dinner on Sunday evening, and Boris Becker, seated beside his fiancee and his parents, was in splendid form.

He had good reason to be. It was formally announced that the three-times Wimbledon champion had switched to wearing tennis outfits and shoes by the Italian company, Lotto, for between dollars 20m (pounds 13.1m) and dollars 25m over five years.

While this represents one of the most lucrative gear changes ever executed in this city of grands prix - where Becker plays this week in the first tournament of the clay court season - it is just another example of how the high society of tennis has altered since 1968.

Open tennis was born 25 years ago this week, Britain's Mark Cox accounting for Pancho Gonzales and Roy Emerson in Bournemouth when amateurs and professionals competed together for the first time. Cox was defeated by Rod Laver, and the tournament was won by Ken Rosewall, who went on to become the inaugural French Open champion.

The total prize-money for the historic Bournemouth event was pounds 5,490, though Cox was content to play for his expenses. The game has since progressed from Cambridge Blue to Las Vegas rainbow, Andre Agassi receiving pounds 265,000 for winning Wimbledon last year.

Prize-money is merely the tip of the fortunes to be amassed, as Becker's latest contract illustrates. The 25-year-old German's official earnings of dollars 11.75m on the court pale beside

the sponsorships and endorsements thrust his way since he became the youngest male to win Wimbledon at 17 in 1985.

What is fascinating is the apparent change in his philosophy. Three years ago, when Karen Schultz was his companion, the multi-millionaire Becker embraced a social conscience and eschewed commercialism. These days, possibly motivated by career alternatives after tennis, he seems keen to match his manager, the entrepreneurial Ion Tiriac, as a businessman. Becker has bought a Mercedes franchise in east Germany and, prior to signing for Lotto, he sold his name to a system for lotteries.

Newly betrothed to Barbara Feltus, an actress, Becker appears to have everything he desires - everything, except a game.

He seems unprepared, physically and perhaps also mentally, for what is traditionally the most difficult part of the year for him, when his feet tend to drag on the slow, salmon-coloured clay courts and baseliners ambush him with cunning passes and lobs.

Becker has won every major championship except the French Open, and his first steps toward Paris, in Nice last week, apparently were made with the weary tread of the convalescent. A second-round defeat by the Argentinian Franco Davin was hardly surprising considering Becker had lost a five-set struggle against a virus which caused him to withdraw from all tournaments since advancing to the semi-finals of the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart in February.

'Boris was hitting the ball nicely,' Gunther Bresnik, his Austrian coach, said between courses of Lotto hospitality on the eve of the dollars 1.65m Volvo Monte Carlo Open. 'But he was feeling tired, not only after the matches, but during them as well. He played well in Qatar. Then in Australia (when he lost in the first round to Anders Jarryd) he was injured. He was playing well in Milan and also in Stuttgart until he was sick. He needs matches, but it's not too late for him to do well at the French Open.'

Becker leaned across the table. 'I have practised hard for three weeks, every day,' he said. 'But it's not like I was on holiday for two weeks. I was ill. It takes two weeks just to get to a normal level of fitness after that before you can start to work on the fitness you need to play matches.' He opens here against Marc Rosset, the Olympic champion.

In the meantime, the Americans have taken an even firmer hold on the game, Pete Sampras supplanting his compatriot, Jim Courier, as the world No 1, the pair distancing themselves from the leading Europeans, Stefan Edberg and Becker.

After winning the ATP Tour Championship in Frankfurt five months ago, Becker's main objective was to restore himself to No 1. Does this remain a viable prospect this year? 'If you asked me six weeks ago if I could get close to Sampras and Courier I would have said yes, but now. . .' A note of resignation was unmistakable.

He was impressed by the news of Sampras's latest victory over Courier in the Hong Kong final. 'I think Sampras should be seeded No 1 for Wimbledon,' he said. 'Courier has a lot of points to defend before then, and Sampras doesn't. If Sampras still has the ranking, then he also has the game to be seeded No 1 for Wimbledon.'

Bresnik chose another tack, expressing dissatisfaction with a ranking system which devalues the major championships. 'Sampras is probably a better No 1 than Courier, because he always had the potential to be the No 1,' he said, 'but it is not good for the game that a player can be No 1 without winning one of the Grand Slams. Courier holds two Grand Slam titles and was the runner-up in the ATP Tour Championship. There should be a lot more points for the Grand Slams than the regular tour events.'

Becker parted from his former coach, Tomas Smid, two weeks before Wimbledon last year. Having been a finalist for six of the previous seven years, he was eliminated by Agassi in the quarter-finals. He was then defeated by Ivan Lendl in the fourth round of the United States Open, employing Bresnik in time for a successful autumn and winter indoor season.

Bresnik also coaches the Swiss, Jakob Hlasek, and has experienced considerable difficulty dealing with conflicting personalities as the Austrian Davis Cup captain. He has a reputation as studious type, strong on psychology, and many people considered that Becker had already spent sufficient time in a think tank.

What he needed most was an adviser who could channel the anger and frustration that had built up since a 6-1, 6-1 defeat by Michael Stich, his compatriot, in Hamburg last May.

'My way is to make a player independent,' Bresnik said. 'I don't think anybody can become a great player if he depends too much on his coach. It is possible to force a player to do something for a time. But in the end he has to have the desire and he has to be able to think for himself.'

All was going extremely well before the virus declared open season. Until we are able properly to assess the results of his rehabilitation, Boris Becker is expensively dressed with nowhere to go.

(Photograph omitted)