Pete Sampras was fearsomely good; Becker, by his own admission, weary and frazzled from earlier conflicts. Once, he would have shrieked and whined as he paced the fringes of this arena. This time, at the end, there were congratulatory smiles from a man mellowed by self-insight and the familiarity of defeat.
Nicer things should happen in your own back yard. Becker has appeared in six of the last eight Wimbledon finals but has captured only one Grand Slam event in the last four years. He is only 25, but the four years separating him from the sharper Sampras yesterday looked like an age. 'I was a step slow today,' Becker said. 'The match with Stich was too tough, maybe.'
Not once did he break Sampras's serve yesterday as he capitulated in straight sets. He delivered 12 double faults of his own. 'It was 8.30pm when we finished (the Stich match). I couldn't go to sleep before two or three in the morning, and that has taken its toll,' he said.
And it was all going so well. Up till now there had been a serenity about Becker's play at this tournament. Gone, or suspended, were the verbal attacks on himself. Signals of empathy and encouragement had been exchanged with Barbara Feltus, his girlfriend watching in the stands, and Becker had spoken with renewed warmth about Wimbledon and the metropolis beyond. Now he faces the hard realisation that younger, snappier adversaries have stormed his little allotment.
'Every year I come here, I always have a good feeling. I think about the past, I think about the good times I had here,' Becker said earlier this week. 'I enjoy this city, I enjoy Wimbledon.' There have been suggestions that Becker and Feltus will set up home in London when they marry this autumn.
Becker says he has been heartened by his form over the fortnight. So he should be. With composure came control to complement the power. But yesterday he walked into a cyclone. At the end of a first set lost on a tie-break, the Centre Court's most regular male resident clamped his hands on his hips and took a breath of the coming wind.
A lone yelp sounded in the second game of the second set, but it was a roar of bemusement rather than self-chiding, as yet another Sampras ace thumped the canvas. At 4-3 down, Becker scrambled to within a point of breaking back, but Sampras was bearing down on the net from all points, and from there they really should have put the screens up around Becker's tiring figure.
His steps got slower. He looked to Feltus for confirmation of what was happening to him. No more Becker revival. No more sense of heading inexorably to yet another final.
In the third, he fell to the ground like a jelly-legged toddler, his right elbow already bloodied from other tumbles at this tournament. The score, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4, will rank with his worst at his favourite event.
Perhaps he will talk again, before next year, of his ambivalent feelings towards tennis and the price it exacts internally. But he will never leave the Centre Court so oddly triumphant, looking down benignly on the man who had thrown him off.Reuse content