Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Boom Boom, out go Becker's lights

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BORIS BECKER tried to go but could not. He reminded Pat Rafter to bow to the Royal Box and was about to leave Centre Court when it hit him it was for the last time. He dropped his bag, lifted both arms in the air and waved goodbye. Then, withdrawing limb by limb, he waved again, this time with one hand.

Fourteen years after he had hit Wimbledon like a missile, winning the men's title at the age of 17 years seven months, the old lion had retired from the Grand Slam tournaments. And this time there will be no more comebacks. The booming/ bonking/bonkers Boris era is over.

"This is goodbye. Definitely," the three-times champion said. "Last time I said it was 99 per cent certain I was retiring. This time it's 100 per cent. It's not going to be any more."

He had lost 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 after confounding himself by even reaching the last 16. He had barely played last year and in 1999 he had won only seven matches, but put Becker within sniffing range of the grass of the All England Club and he is a force renewed. Or he was until yesterday.

"The place was always special to me," he said. "It made me who I am today and gave me the possibilities and freedom to do what I want to do. I'm very thankful." His main regret was the manner of his parting. "I wish I could have given them a better match."

It was so one-sided you realised why Becker feels he has to go. The two- day break due to the rain could have rested his 31-year-old limbs but instead it stripped him of rhythm and fluency. Rafter did not gently usher the old champion from the All England Club, he shoved him aside, the new generation barging rudely through.

It is a recurring theme, the old being challenged by the young, but a compelling one none the less. Every set Becker raised himself to break his opponent but each time it was just the stirring of old memories. Rafter's retort came immediately.

In truth, Becker ambled round his stage like an old actor with the power to transfix but an with an inability to remember his lines. He even tripped at one point, upended by the place he loves, and by the end you just wanted the rout to finish. "Come on, Boris" the voices shouted; the instincts said: "Get off as soon as you can."

Rafter is a curious player. For the world No 2 he can look surprisingly ordinary at times but yesterday his game touched heights that were reminiscent of Pete Sampras. His volleys were so crisp they could have been salt and vinegar flavoured and, although Becker clearly suspected the Australian's backhand was a weakness, his feeding it was like loading shells into a cannon.

Becker, his service cranked up like an old machine, got off to a flier and was 3-1 up but the response was sudden and vicious. The German's game was picked to pieces by the barrage of passing shots just beyond his reach and, as he had to serve deeper to halt this flow, double faults piled up on top of each other.

"I left my serve at home," Becker said. "I had no timing at all. So I tried to take something off the first serve and play it safely, but he started to return incredibly. It was a struggle."

Instead of pulling away, Becker was overtaken so comprehensively that he lost the next seven games and when his next mini-revival was waved away with near disdain he resorted to blaming the line judges. After one game he threw his racket down in furious frustration and later he placed a ball in the corner of the court to say where he thought it had landed. It was stupid and undignified and, further more, he was wrong. Maybe the old eyes are going, too.

Still there was barely a dry eye on Centre Court when he did finally succumb and even the members of the Royal Box stood to applaud him. Not many Germans have won the hearts of the British but Becker has. "It's a great love affair, to tell the truth," he said. "The support is like nowhere else in the world."

Asked to recall the special times at Wimbledon, his emotions failed him. "My mind is like a train now," he said. "I can't remember a particular moment, only the incredible ride."

The competitor inside him was spurred, however, by a question about regrets. "What really bugs me is losing four finals," he said. "You are in the final seven times and only come out the winner three, that's not a good percentage."

Yesterday he could rest assured. He had lost but the warmth of the farewell said one thing: Becker was a winner.