Tennis: Queen's gambit rekindles Becker's inner fires: Guy Hodgson on a former champion who is delighted to be back on his old stamping grounds

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AT COURT level Boris Becker sounds like a steam engine. Hit and hiss, serve and volley with a huge sigh. With his fires piled high and his engines racing he must be like the Flying Scotsman leaving St Pancras.

Except that in recent months Becker has hardly ever reached full speed and the prevailing sound has been that of deflation. The Becker reputation has been going down this year until he represents a less substantial figure. He is still among the possibles to win Wimbledon but in years gone by he was the favourite. Once Andre Agassi was trying to quantify the German's ability. 'If Becker's playing great, sorry. You've no chance,' the Wimbledon champion said. Then, his huge strokes and awesome lines would give him the appearance of a bully on the court. He did not defeat players, he ejected them physically from his path.

Unfortunately he is great at the moment about as often as the England football team and the trend line running through his form is consistently downwards. He has not won a Grand Slam tournament since September 1991 and he has not got beyond the quarter-finals of any event since February. In the last two months he has won only six matches, two wins at the Stella Artois Championship at Queen's Club this week being part of the run.

Becker is like other players; it is the drug of winning that he craves more than tennis. He has said he would retire if he could get no higher in the rankings than the top 20. Alternatively he has also said he expects to add a further two Grand Slam tournaments to the five he has won since he began his collection at Wimbledon, aged 17, eight years ago.

In the past he has said he has contemplated taking a break from tennis in the manner of John McEnroe and although he emphasises he does not contemplate semi-retirement at the moment the subject is a touchy one. 'I've just won a match in 52 minutes,' he replied when queried this week whether an extended holiday might be beneficial. 'Can't we talk about that?'

Queen's was the venue that launched Becker at the All England Club title in 1985 and has a special place in his affections. 'The best possible preparation for Wimbledon is for me to win here,' he said. 'I play flat-out. I acclimatise quickly to grass. Two days and I feel confident on it. But a match on this surface is different and you need to play as much as you can before you get to Wimbledon. I just need some matches.' His campaign this week was curtailed after three with his compatriot Michael Stich beating him 6-4 7-6.

Becker was suffering and so was the German woman watching him. 'Boris is German tennis,' she said. 'Put him on one television channel and the rest of our players on another and our public would want Becker. It is the media that seems to have turned against him. If he wins it's 'wonderful Boris'. If he loses a couple of matches it's 'He's too fat. He's too lazy. He does not practise enough.' '

Even given his country's fickle perception, Becker appears bigger, particularly round the buttocks, than he did when he played what he described as 'some of the best tennis of my career' at the turn of the year, a period in which he won the ATP World Championship in Frankfurt and further titles in Qatar and Milan. Then a virus laid him low for the most of March and he has been trying to regain his best since.

A misguided attempt to cram in extra tournaments to rush his fitness led to a sequence of bad results and the dismissal of his coach Gunther Bresnik. 'I had the wrong training and a bad start,' Becker said. 'I played five tournaments in a row when perhaps I should have had a couple of weeks off and I never got into fifth gear. I was losing in the first and second rounds, which was too much for me.'

Becker is now being guided by Eric Jelen, the former German Davis Cup player, who also worked with him at last year's Wimbledon after another schism with a coach. 'I don't need anyone to tell me how to hit a forehand but I do need someone to kick me up the behind when I'm not 100 per cent. I trust Eric. He used to play against me. He knows my good and bad shots.'

There were plenty of both against Stich, although Becker seemed content. You suspect he believes that his conqueror can hardly reach a higher plane while he has more to aim for. 'I felt I got better and better,' he said. 'I got more chances to break as the match wore on.

'To go so close with someone who is as good as Michael on this surface is encouraging. All I lack is the one shot, the ability to make it against the top players. I didn't make the important shots against Michael. Once I can do that I'll know I'm ready. I'm moving in the right direction.'

Ahead lies Wimbledon where he has either won or been beaten by the eventual winner since 1987. 'It's always a special tournament for me and as long as I play it will be,' he said while contemplating his prospects. 'A lot will depend on the draw. Ideally you have a nice easy start and you want to avoid players like Goran Ivanisevic when you are in the last 16.'

Last year Becker's record of six final appearances (three won, three lost) in seven years, was disrupted by Agassi, who confronted his serve head on, using the power against its orginator. Becker described the experience as unique. 'My serve has never been treated like that,' he said.

This time he anticipates little trouble from the reigning champion. 'To my knowledge he hasn't played or even practised for two months,' he said. 'Nobody gave him a chance last year so you can't completely rule him out, but his chances are slim.'

Would he still participate if he was in Agassi's position? 'Yes. I would play no matter what my condition was. You don't have many chances of being on Centre Court at 2pm on the first Monday.'

Becker has done so more times than any other man in the field and there is a confidence about him that suggests he believes he might be enjoying the experience again next year. The form line could be misleading.

(Photograph omitted)

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