Tennis: Fragile Stich unravelled by Becker: Germans settle differences while Ivanisivec dispatches Leconte in highly strung meeting

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The Independent Online
BORIS BECKER took another impressive stride towards showing the sceptics that he is close to the form that made him such a force in the game by defeating his compatriot, Michael Stich, 6-3, 7-6, to reach the semi-finals of the dollars 2.25m Eurocard Open here last night.

The victory contained many of the elements of the Becker game once feared by every player in the world. There was the potent serve, the athletically delivered volley and, perhaps most important, the tenacity under pressure that enabled him to overcome many an adverse situation.

Though Stich had risen to No 2 in the world and carried Germany to triumph in the Davis Cup in Becker's absence at the end of last year, he was the player who displayed fragility when it came to the crunch in this, the eighth duel between the German Titans. He created the first break point when Becker served nervously in the opening game but was unable to follow up a backhand cross-court service return with a similiar effort on the next point.

Becker, having survived this, matched Stich serve for serve and then broke him in the eighth game when Stich's serve faltered after his rival had passed him with a cross- court backhand on the first point. Becker allowed his opponent one more point when serving out the set in 33 minutes.

Stich seemed to have survived this onslaught, and began to dominate the second set. He broke for

4-2, beating Becker with a forehand pass, luring him into hitting a backhand over the baseline, and then applying sufficient pressure for Becker to double fault.

The most surprising action of the night came when Stich served for the set at 5-3. This normally steady performer was unable to land a first serve in bounds, suffering perhaps from the oppressive atmosphere and some shouting during the points from over-enthusiastic spectators. He was broken to love, Becker leaning back and screaming with delight after hitting a winning forehand down the line.

Having secured a tie-break with three consecutive aces, Becker was in no mood to surrender the initiative again. He was by far the more confident player in the tie-break, in which he took a 5-1 lead and then secured the shoot-out and the match, 7-4, after 90 minutes.

There were 8,500 packed into the arena and another 2,000 locked outside and the consensus was that the Becker victory was an encouraging blow for the game at large. The spectators arrived to the strains of Phil Collins's recording, 'No Friend Of Mine', but the handshake between the protagonists at the finish seemed sincere enough.

Becker said he was surprised to be playing well so soon after his two-month break from the game and added that beating Stich was on a par with his successful defence of the Milan title last week.

Stich's defeat will drop him to No 3 behind Jim Courier when the new rankings are published on Monday, but he had few complaints. 'It was a good match,' he said. 'He served better. He got lucky on a few points. I had my chances, but the best guy won.'

Becker now faces Goran Ivanisevic, who served 105 aces when winning the title here two years ago on a much faster carpet court. In the other semi-final, Stefan Edberg will play Sergi Bruguera, the French Open champion. There was a certain fascination yesterday in watching Ivanisevic play Henri Leconte, a couple of left-handers of distinctive style whose games are buttressed by dodgy mental scaffolding.

Ivanisevic, the fourth seed, won 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 after spectators had been taken on an emotional roller- coaster ride for 95 minutes. Leconte, who becomes faintly ridiculous when he becomes angry, was upset by line-calls when his serve was broken in the fourth game. Ivanisevic was then outraged by a line-call when he lost the second set. He was warned for throwing his racket and may face further repercussions for referring in his post-match interview to 'that ugly blind linesman'.

(Photograph omitted)

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