Tennis: Stich's chance to move out of Becker's shadow: Germany's world No 2 holds key to Davis Cup final

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The Independent Online
ONE of Boris Becker's excentricities during a trying season was the revelation to a magazine interviewer that he would consider it an interesting challenge to coach the British Davis Cup team. After that, one of old wunderkind's long- suffering acquaintances sighed, Boris would probably like to be an astronaut.

The indications are that Germany's Davis Cup team may be able to afford to spare Becker for either project. Though they have never before won the trophy without him (1988 and 1989), they have advanced to the final here in his absence and go into the match against Australia today as favourites, Michael Stich taking centre stage.

'I think Stich's shaken off the Becker bogy,' Neale Fraser, the Australian captain said yesterday, adding, for the benefit of his own players: 'He's Germany's No 1 by a long way, and so the expectations from him every time he steps on the court are high.'

Had Becker remained loyal to the national side instead of announcing at the beginning of the year that he would concentrate on a solo flight back to No 1 in the world (he is currently No 11), it is possible that the Germans would still be where they are today. The difference is that the final would be being played on a fast indoor carpet court rather than slow red clay.

Having calculated that their players are better suited to the slower stuff than their opponents, the Germans are depending on Stich, the world No 2, and his compatriots, Marc Goellner and Patrik Kuhnen, to prove it.

Stich's form in winning the recent ATP Tour Championship on an even-paced carpet in Frankfurt was impressive. The 1991 Wimbledon champion now faces three days toiling on clay before moving on to Munich next week to defend the Grand Slam Cup on Supreme carpet, the fastest there is. Fraser wonders if Stich might lose his footing. 'With all this pressure, we're expecting him to have a bit of a lull,' he said, 'and we wouldn't mind if he took a holiday this weekend.'

It is likely to be anything but a holiday for Australia's Jason Stoltenberg, who was selected by Fraser yesterday to be the team's No 2 singles player. He opens the final by playing Stich this afternoon and brings it to a close against Goellner on Sunday.

Stoltenberg, a 23-year-old who learned the game on antbed courts in Wee-Waa in the bush country of New South Wales, is preferred to Wally Masur, a fast-court specialist whose form has deserted him since he reached the semi- finals of the United States Open in September.

Confident performances in practice on the clay during the 10 days since the team arrived was highlighted by Stoltenberg's 6-1, 6-2 win against the 30-year-old Masur a couple of days ago. The week before Wimbledon, Stoltenberg won his first singles title, defeating Masur on grass in the final of the Manchester tournament.

With his clerk's spectacles, the tall, slim Stoltenberg looks as if he reads far more books than Jim Courier. He wears glasses chiefly to avoid problems with glare, and intends to experiment with contact lenses after the final. Meanwhile, the lenses are trained on Stich.

Their only previous match, in the third round of the Australian Open in January, was won by Stich, 6-1 in the fifth set. Stoltenberg had only just returned to the tour after a shoulder injury, one of several physical problems which have hampered his transition from being the world's top ranked junior in 1987.

Though both Stoltenberg and Masur were instrumental in the 5-0 whitewashing of India away on grass in the semi- finals, one of them had to step down to make way for the clay- court expertise of Richard Fromberg. There again, Fraser was unable to finalise his selection until Fromberg passed a fitness test on a strained muscle in his rib cage.

Elevated to No 1, Fromberg plays Goellner in today's second singles rubber. Goellner announced his arrival on the scene by winning the Nice clay-court tournament in April. He is the only German likely to greet the opposition with G'dye, mate, having spent time in Australia while travelling with his diplomat father.

The hope is that the tie stays alive beyond tomorrow's doubles, between Stich and Kuhnen and the celebrated 'Woodies', Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge.

DAVIS CUP FINAL (Dusseldorf) Today: Michael Stich v Jason Stoltenberg; Marc Goellner v Richard Fromberg. Tomorrow: Stich and Patrik Kuhnen v Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. Sunday: Stich v Fromberg; Goellner v Stoltenberg.

(Photograph omitted)

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