Tennis: Becker's urge to rediscover boom times: Nick Bollettieri has been put in charge of revitalising the career of an ailing champion. John Roberts reports from Munich

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The Independent Online
'SOME DAY,' Nick Bollettieri once prophesied, 'parents will bring their new-born babies to me.' So if a bonny German infant is seen blitzing the courts at Nick's tennis academy in Florida a few months hence, we can take it that Baby Boom-Boom has arrived.

Do not count on it. The chances are that Boris Becker, Germany's most celebrated expectant father, would be less likely to force a racket into his future child's hand than to sprout a ponytail and date Barbra Streisand.

Bollettieri was happy to settle for the original yesterday, when he was confirmed as Becker's new coach. 'I am convinced,' Becker said, 'that he will be instrumental in achieving the goals I have set for my tennis in 1994.'

The 62-year-old New Yorker's response to his appointment as No 7 in the line of Becker mentors was characteristically understated: 'It is for me a real honour to be able to team up with one of the very greatest in tennis.'

Their paths appear to have crossed with the timing of an Andre Agassi service return.

Old Sunshades has grandiose plans to extend his coaching camps throughout Europe. But he tore up his gilt-edged calling card by parting from Agassi after Wimbledon in response to feelings of alienation from the Las Vegan's entourage.

Becker is in the throes of a mid- career crisis at 26, the age at which Bjorn Borg took stock and walked out on the sport and its attendant hassles. Yesterday's news indicated that he has no intention of following suit.

He promises that his game will be revitalised as soon as the baby is born; as soon as he and his wife-to- be, Barbara Feltus, have settled into a new home; as soon as the legal wrangle caused by the split with his former manager, Ion Tiriac, has been resolved; as soon as Bollettieri gets to work.

Next June marks the 10th anniversary of Becker's first appearance at Wimbledon, the year before he startled the world in 1985 by becoming the youngest and first unseeded men's singles champion, aged 17 and seven months.

As the first German to win the title, his success had as great an impact on his homeland as Borg's did on Sweden; the difference being that Germany is bigger and so is Becker's personality.

Unlike Borg, who is a generation removed from Stefan Edberg, Becker was still around when a compatriot claimed the crown. Michael Stich, Becker's junior by only a year, did not inherit the title. He snatched it from under Boris's nose on the Centre Court in 1991.

If Becker imagined that he had exorcised Stich with a five-set victory in the Wimbledon quarter- finals this year, he has been painfully disabused. The match proved to be the high point of Becker's year. Stich's campaign had not even begun. In recent weeks, and in German arenas, he has stripped Becker of the ATP Tour Championship, his last title of value, and inspired the nation to triumph in the Davis Cup final.

While all this was taking place without him, Becker was trying to assemble mind and body for his last commitment of the season, the Compaq Grand Slam Cup at Munich's Olympiahalle this week. He spent eight days training at the Bollettieri camp in Florida. The proprietor is one of the dollars 6m ( pounds 4.5m) Grand Slam Cup's ancillary sponsors, and Becker's new adviser, Axel Meyer- Wolden, promotes the event.

Becker's participation lasted 97 minutes, the time it took the South African Wayne Ferreira to put him out in the opening round. That small point may be overlooked amid the hyperbole accompanying Bollettieri's leap aboard.

Eric Jelen, a former Davis Cup team-mate who had tried to jolly Becker along since June, when he sacked his Austrian coach, Gunther Bresnik, walked off the practice court last Sunday when Becker arrived with Bollettieri.

'Please don't write that it's a big thing,' Jelen said. 'I told Boris the week after the US Open that I would not be working with him after the end of the year. The only surprise is that I left a week early. I was never a coach, only a friend helping out. Boris still has the game. It depends on how much he works. But that's been a problem for the last year. I hope that the baby will give him a new kick.'

How big a kick can Bollettieri deliver? Becker has won nearly dollars 14m in official prize-money, which is only a fraction of his earnings from marketing. His accomplishments embrace every major championship with the exception of the French Open, whose slow clay courts cramp his attacking style.

The one thing that can motivate him is pride, the desire for at least one more big win. Losing his top-10 ranking for the first time since logging on to the computer has been compounded by the sight of Stich challenging Pete Sampras for the No 1 spot.

Becker has had more coaches than the Orient Express. Turning to Bollettieri, or to anybody else, at this stage would seem to be a waste of time unless he is prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in terms of training, practice and discipline. Becker knows the script by heart.

'Boris likes to be independent,' Bob Brett reminded us. The Australian was Becker's coach for three and a half years ('I nearly hold the record]'). They parted after Becker won the Australian Open in January, 1991, his last success in a Grand Slam championship.

'Being independent is fine,' Brett continued, 'but you have to keep the basics of your game. This is what Boris has to do. It is not a matter of doing anything new. He has to put all the bits and pieces of his game back together.'

Before Bollettieri materialised, Brett was sounded out about the possibility of rejoining Becker. While confident he knew the player well enough to revive the partnership and make it work, he pointed out that he already had his hands full trying to break in the Croatian Goran Ivanisevic.

Brett followed Becker's original mentor, Gunther Bosch, who departed during the 1987 Australian Open, having concluded from the player's preoccupation with a girlfriend, and his attitude ('I don't need a coach 24 hours a day'), that his work was no longer appreciated. After Brett came a procession of Niki Pilic, Tomas Smid, Bresnik and Jelen.

'It can take between seven and nine months to get to know a player and what that player needs,' Brett said. 'You not only have to be able to tell them things, but be able to tell them why they should do them. They have a right to know, and if you can't explain, you shouldn't be doing the job. You need to be able to talk about anything and everything. There is only so much you can do when it comes to hitting the tennis balls. I spent hours on planes playing chess with Boris, and some of our most constructive conversations came from that.'

Brett, unlike some, does not despair of seeing Becker lift another major trophy; perhaps even adding to his three Wimbledon titles. 'It is still within Boris's capablities, but he hasn't got time on his side,' he said. 'He should try to be as he was when he was 20: excited to play.'

With personalities at a premium, the sport will applaud Bollettieri if he can coax Becker into becoming a born-again winner.

(Photograph omitted)

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