Tennis: Weary Becker in danger of losing the mind game: Guy Hodgson reports from Flushing Meadow on the downward slide of a former world No 1

BORIS BECKER went out of the United States Open this week to no huge surprise. There were few large headlines, and television concentrated on his conqueror, Ivan Lendl, and the length of the match - 5hrs 1min - rather than the man who 14 months ago was the best male tennis player in the world. The German's decline, in America at least, seems to be so complete as to be barely worth a mention.

By any standards, Becker's fall has been relentless. Twelve months ago he was the top seed at Flushing Meadow; this time he was seventh. 'When you have been No 1 or No 2 in the world, your ranking doesn't matter,' he said this week, fooling nobody. An intelligent man capable, unlike the majority of sportsmen, of knowledgeable discussion of world matters of the complexity of German unification or the problems of Yugoslavia, he is wise enough to put his problems into proper perspective. But he cares deeply, maybe too much so.

He won Wimbledon in 1985 at the age of 17. At 24, the evidence points to him being so mentally eroded that he may never rise again in a game he once threatened to dominate. There are precedents in plenty of minds: the disillusioned Mats Wilander, the lesser John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg's tortured retirement and return. Becker is eminently capable of becoming a great tennis player again, but he could just as easily slip into premature retirement.

'He is different,' Lendl said after a victory over a man he had never beaten in a Grand Slam event before. 'The power is not there. He is just bunting the ball back.' In a sport where power is becoming all too prevalent, to suggest the ball is being lobbed back rather than having the fur belted off it is probably the ultimate insult. It is also a sorry description of a player whose physical presence alone could once throttle the fight out of opponents. It was blatant, brute force, open and naive in its way, but the image of the athletic 6ft 3in Teuton at the net would strip the fluidity from the strokes of the man trying to pass him from the baseline.

Now the naivety is gone. Becker's physical strength remains, but knowledge and experience have not toughened the German's mind so much as make him world weary before his time. It is between his ears that the problem lies. 'You don't know how difficult it is to motivate yourself when you have won nearly everything,' he said, even though his performances are making it increasingly apparent.

The mental fissures exploded into view last year just as he was about to assume indisputable dominance in men's tennis. Already the possessor of the Australian Open title, Becker was overwhelming favourite to win his fourth Grand Slam event in nine attempts as he began the Wimbledon final against his compatriot Michael Stich.

Instead Centre Court witnessed an extraordinary vision of a sportsman stressed to the point of torment. He wailed at himself and the sky, headbutted the canvass and emitted Hammer Horror screams into his towel. It was bizarre even in a world used to excesses of emotion. The crowd had come to raise him on to a pedestal. Instead they saw a man buried by self-doubts. Stich won and pushed Becker into a spiral of defeat unprecedented for him.

His record in Grand Slam events since defeat to Stich has been undistinguished to say the least. Beaten in the third round at Flushing Meadow immediately after, he has failed to get beyond the quarter-finals in the major events. Most significantly, he lost to Andre Agassi over five sets at Wimbledon on his favourite surface and on the lightning-quick grass that, in theory, should least suit the American's baseline game. It was the first time since 1987 that Becker had failed to reach the final.

'It was pretty tough to lose to Agassi in five at Wimbledon,' Becker said in the immediate aftermath of his defeat by Lendl this week, 'and I've had a pretty tough loss against Ivan. In a sense it doesn't hurt as much when you lose quite easily. I'm more tired than disappointed right now, but when I wake up in a few days' time the pain is going to start.

'It was not a question of me not trying or not playing good. It was just a question of two men battling there for five fours and one had to lose. It happened to be me. There is going to come a time when those break-points are going to fall for me. It wasn't today and it won't be tomorrow but if I continue the way I have been practising and playing I'm going to be back in the top of the tennis world.'

The other players are becoming increasingly doubtful, which, in turn, makes them more courageous and hopeful when they face the German across the net. Becker is in a vicious cycle where every defeat makes the next more probable. He is still a notable scalp for young men trying to make names for themselves and in tennis they gather like carrion crows at the first sign of weakness.

Before he met Lendl, Becker described his next opponent. 'He is in good shape and is playing good tennis right now,' he said, 'but he has been 12, 13 years on the tour and he has been in the top five for most of that time. It's pretty tough to do it 12 years in a row.'

Read 'eight' for '12' and Becker could have been talking about himself.

(Photograph omitted)

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