Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - MacLagan makes it tough for weary warrior Becker

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TWO YEARS ago, they carried Boris Becker out from here on his trusty German shield. Yesterday he was brought back in on it for an addendum to a career which was as extraordinary as the battles which had gone before.

The old warrior gave away age and three match points before overhauling his British opponent Miles MacLagan 5-7, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 over three hours and 53 minutes. It took a while to play. It took a while to sink in.

For much of the journey, this was not the Boris Becker we remembered. This was a man fumbling for the past, a player moving as swiftly over his chosen terrain as a legionnaire. It must be hard to be too old at 31.

Becker's limbs have forgotten to move as quickly as they used to, but, more damagingly yesterday, the mental toughness on the big points also seemed to have been erased.

It took the considerable jolt of three match points in the fourth set to awaken this skill and, by the end, it became as easy as it should have been against the world No298.

Boris raised his arms to the sky, as he used to in final acclamation, but this time you got the impression that, if a racket had been plopped in his spare hand, the old boy might have collapsed.

It was a pose many thought they had seen for the last time. In 1997, after quarter-final defeat here, he told Pete Sampras at the net that it was all over. There were to be no more Grand Slams. The roses were scattered after this valedictory performance.

Becker found, though, that he could not cope without the game, the raw competition. And, after all, there are worse sports than tennis in which to linger too long. "There are a number of reasons why I can't leave Wimbledon alone," he said yesterday. "That's why I wanted one more try."

He was the first German male, in 1985, to win the Wimbledon title. He was the first unseeded player. He was the youngest. Now, in tennis terms, he is just plain old. It is a wearying fact to accept for both Becker himself and those who have been around for his glorious career.

Just the other day, it seems, he was the impertinent youth. But then, yesterday, the same figure was before us with, at courtside, his pregant wife Barbara, soon to produce an addition to Noah. He has done quite a lot in between. It is probably best not to think of personal productivity.

Becker has played more successfully on grass than any other human being, with the possible exception of Bob Marley. Among active players he has 113 wins on the surface, 37 ahead of Sampras. There have been the six Grand Slams, three of them here in SW19, along the way.

The first venue for this, Becker's 15th Wimbledon, was Court No 2, nominally the graveyard for big reputations, though, it has to be said, the demons appear largely to stay underground these days.

Boris arrived with a green towel in his hand. In the old days we could have been sure this was not for throwing in, but it was a faith that would be sorely tested during the course of the afternoon.

MacLagan, at 24, had youth on his side, but that appeared to be his sole advantage. He was on his own stage, but, curiously, without the bulk of the support. It was rather like Little Red Riding Hood getting booed.

At least a flag of St George was unfurled in the crowd for his benefit, though this was not entirely appropriate for a man born in Zambia of Scottish parents and subsequently brought up in Zimbabwe.

This was only MacLagan's 11th match at Grand Slam or ATP level.

It was also his first contest above the Challenger grade this year and, even in that tiny world, he had registered just one win, over Michael Jessup in the Ho Chi Minh Challenger in February. If Boris was intimidated by this form guide he used his old pro wiles to keep it to himself.

MacLagan, though, proved a rather spunky sacrifice in the early stages. Rather too spunky for old Boris. The net has never been a destination for Becker. It's been a home.

But here he was hesitant and wary, caught repeatedly in half-volley territory as his opponent whistled back serious forehands.

Whatever Becker has done in the past he has done positively. But here was a timid impostor, slicing when he should have been driving, prodding instead of forcing. He did not play the big points well. He actually appeared frail. It was sad to see.

MacLagan, to be fair to him, seemed to cope well with the trauma. He mopped up one set and then two, and appeared barely unsettled by Becker's capture of the third. At 5-4 in the fourth, the old kaiser seemed to have had enough as he was forced to three match points on his serve.

Miles MacLagan did not then play badly. He just got caught up in a last hurrah. "I have been in close matches before here and I have got through and there is a reason for that," Becker said. "I am still around."

Enjoy it while he is. The victory sustained Becker's dream that he could end his Wimbledon career on the centre court which he regarded as his own in his heyday. An hour before play began yesterday, he was seen sitting in the royal box, gazing out over that court, his thinking plain to see.