Becker and Stich put on show of solidarity

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The Independent Online

Boris Becker was nudged out of the limelight by his German compatriot Michael Stich in London yesterday, evoking memories of "Carrot and Stich" in the 1991 Wimbledon final. No longer bitter rivals, more like buddies in their mid-thirties, they are able to laugh and joke about the old days.

Including Wimbledon '91? "I want to talk about it - he doesn't," Stich said, smiling broadly.

He had just defeated Becker, 6-3, 7-6, in the round-robin segment at the Honda Challenge senior tour event, leaving old "Boom-boom" without a set to his name after two matches. The second set yesterday was tight until it came to the tie-break - Stich drilled his opponent 7-1 - and spectators were treated to attacking tennis played in a good spirit; a mixture of competition and fun.

"In the former days," Becker recalled, "we were competitors from the same country, north and south, different characters, playing in the Wimbledon final. It was difficult to get to know each other. Thank God that's over and we have a new friendship. It's much better that way. We have started to speak the same language. We communicate."

Stich added: "It's part of growing up. We're still competitive and play good tennis against each other, but we are able to put things in perspective. I went out for dinner with John [McEnroe] last night, and I've been out to dinner with Boris." Their dinner conversation revolves around family and business rather that tennis, although both men are aware that the game in Germany is not what it was when they and Steffi Graf were in their pomp.

"Germany has not vanished from the tennis scene," Becker said, having turned promoter to help save the Hamburg Masters tournament. He and Stich have also served as Germany's Davis Cup captain.

Their nation's leading player at the moment is the steady Rainer Schüttler, the world No 6, runner-up to Andre Agassi at the Australian Open last January. Schüttler was also here yesterday, playing a charity match against Tim Henman, the British No 1.

Although Becker's body can no longer be relied up to withstand an overload of tennis, he is such a charismatic personality that he is always in demand to inspire the younger generation. Yesterday morning, for example, he attended a coaching clinic at the Westway Centre in Notting Hill as an ambassador for the Lawn Tennis Association's City Tennis Club project.

"The inner-city programme is a step in the right direction," Becker said, "especially in this country, where tennis has been an élitist sport. We all need to wake up. Tennis is not going on for another 20 years unless some things change. You either have a traditional sport, or you open up.

"Young kids listen to hip-hop and play basketball, because it's the trend. I'm not a big fan of totally sleeveless tennis shirts, and I'm not in favour of all-white shirts, either. The job is to find a middle way. The younger generation don't care what used to be." This does not mean that Becker advocates image above than substance. "You can have as many hairdos as you want," he said, "but you have to win the majors."

The Honda Challenge, the final leg of the Delta Tour of Champions, offers tennis enthusiasts an opportunity to glimpse the skills of old favourites before their joints make more noise than the applause. The event, which is in its seventh year, is more popular than ever. Spectators find the novelty doubles contests as entertaining as the singles.

Everybody has a version of "My Way", but Mansour Bahrami's is accompanied by the swish of his racket as he coaxes the ball past opponents. Ilie Nastase was one of his victims yesterday.