Tennis: Becker's timely warning

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At the conclusion of the Stella Artois Championships beneath a cloudless sky here yesterday, Stefan Edberg, the runner-up, told the winner, Boris Becker, that he would see him in two weeks. "No," Becker corrected, "in three weeks". Both trust that they have not peaked too soon for Wimbledon, which starts next Monday, and the same must be said of the weather.

Edberg is not taking any chances. Last night he pulled out of this week's grass-court event in Halle, Germany, to avoid the risk of aggravating a sore hip.

Yesterday's final between two of the finest grass-court players of their generation gave the spectators an opportunity to pay homage to Edberg, the No14 seed, in his retirement season and marvel again at the attacking skills and determination the second-seeded Becker brings to the court.

Eleven years to the day after he won his first tour title here at the age of 17 - and promptly went on to startle Wimbledon, unseeded - Becker demonstrated that he is capable of winning a fourth All England Club championship.

In equalling John McEnroe's four victories at Queen's, the 28-year-old German did not drop a set in his five matches. He generally had the edge against Edberg, though the final could have been tighter than 6-4, 7-6 if the Swede had served better at the start of the tie-break.

The quality of play was high, and regulars at the tournament were treated to the bonus of witnessing a break of serve in the final for the first time since 1993. There were three breaks in all, Edberg's coming just in time to prevent Becker from serving out the match at 6-5 in the second set.

Both men served, returned and volleyed so well that rallies were again at a premium, even though the court, blessed with a week of dry conditions, continued to play hard and true.

There was one exchange of 11 shots, on the first point of the seventh game of the opening set, which produced Becker's first break of serve. Up to then, the German had allowed Edberg only one point off his own serve.

The Swede's two opportunities to break back in the next game, but Becker whisked them away, as he did when Edberg seemed to be on the point of taking the initiative in the second and 10th games of the second set.

In the 12th game, when Becker's first serve let him down, Edberg passed him with impressive returns. The Swede then double-faulted on the first point of the tie-break, which Becker won, 7-3, to close the contest after 92 minutes.

Before lifting the trophy, Becker paid tribute to Edberg. "Stefan," he said, "you've been a rival, a friend, somebody I've shared the spotlight with for a long time now, and you are surely one of the best ambassadors for tennis that I've ever seen."

Edberg's progress to the final will raise his world ranking today to 20 or 21 from No 26. It will be interesting to see where the Wimbledon seedings committee place him today, and also how they view the clay-court specialist Thomas Muster, the world No 2, who was good value for his top seeding here until he ran up against Edberg in the semi-finals.

"In my opinion, Stefan should be seeded," Becker said, "and not just because it's his last Wimbledon." However, the German would not go along with the notion of placing Edberg as high as No 8. "You've got to consider other players," he said. And Muster? "With Thomas, I have my doubts about the top four. I would say between five and eight."

As for omens, Edberg was able to take heart from yesterday's result. When he last played Becker in the Queen's final, in 1988, the German won the title, but the Swede went on to beat him for the major prize at Wimbledon. Three weeks later, of course.