Wimbledon 1997: Old boom, new broom

Decision day draws nearer for ex-champion Becker: Andrew Longmore fears the career of a born competitor is winding down

"Summertime" is the theme tune of Mr and Mrs Boris Becker, the tune to which the proposal of marriage was offered and accepted in a fashionable Munich restaurant three and a half years ago. Summertime has yet to be the theme for Wimbledon 1997, nor has the living been easy this year for the three-times champion who has been hit by a recurrent wrist injury and forced by the lingering attentions of the taxman and pro-Nazi groups to contemplate a permanent move from Munich to Florida.

The decision will be influenced most by Noah, Becker's three-year-old son, who will reach school age next year. But the desire to win one more Wimbledon title will doubtless play its part in the timing of any decision to embrace a new life.

"I still have as much motivation and hunger as when I first started," he said. "I am a born competitor, no matter what field I'm in. I like to play and practise still, it's not really hard work, and I still feel I have one more Wimbledon left inside me. The pressure on me will come when Noah goes to school and we have to have a permanent home. Then it will become difficult because he wouldn't be able to travel and I would miss him."

No one who has watched Becker the father at close hand could doubt those sentiments, nor question the new tranquillity which seems to have soothed a once troubled soul. On a happiness scale of 1 to 10, Becker once put himself at nine to nine and a half, but on court another of his phrases - "tennis years are dog years" - has rung more true in recent years. At times, he has made tennis look like a desperately hard day at the office.

Some close to Becker believe that a fourth Wimbledon would prompt an instant farewell, a grand gesture which would fit Becker's sense of theatre. The circle would only be perfectly completed by one final afternoon of triumph on the stage where his career began 12 years ago.

Becker's long and often painful journey can be measured in Wimbledons, in titles, haircuts, moods, opinions and millions. Somewhere along the line, the gauche "Boom Boom" of the mid-1980s who sat in his borrowed dinner jacket and ate takeaway pizza after the Champions' Ball, turned into Boris, the elder statesman in the sharp suit who stood on Court One last week in the company of the greatest Wimbledon champions and was humbled by the mass of grand slam titles around him.

"Some of these people have won 50 titles, I have only seven," he said later. Over lunch with Margaret Court and Rod Laver, he listened to stories of old Wimbledon, of wooden rackets and long rallies with the awe of a novice. During the ceremony, Becker was the epitome of solemnity, clutching his celebratory silver salver as if he would never let it go. Becker has always been transfixed by the traditions of Wimbledon; now he is as much part of them as the ivy-clad walls and the royal box.

Yet the rebel in Becker, the one who supported the street people of Hamburg and sewed a Greenpeace patch on his shirt, has never allowed for a smooth relationship with the All England Club. For a long time, he felt the Club - particularly its order of play committee - had a vendetta against him. He was once thrown off the courts for hitting with his coach, who was not a member. The Club later apologised. But, in 1991, after losing to Michael Stich in the final, he complained about the scheduling throughout the tournament.

This year has been little different. Becker would have raised a slight smile when the parade on the new Court One turned into exile on Court Two for his first-round match against Marcos Aurelio Gorriz. It barely mattered. Though desperately short of matchplay, Becker was able to rummage through the rudiments of his grasscourt game knowing that the Spaniard's name was much grander than his game. A big serve here, a backhand pass there, a volley or two, the odd bead of sweat, Becker wore what looked like a cardigan and only needed slippers, armchair and pipe to make himself feel completely at home. At courtside, his coach, Mike DePalmer, sat impassively alongside Walde the physio, Ulli the racket stringer and Barbara. Noah had been left with the bodyguard and the childminder.

The rest of the wettest week on record revived echoes from the past. Scheduled last on Court One for Thursday, he made it on to the order of play for his beloved Centre Court for Friday, but only as last match. You would have thought, after losing Stefan Edberg so carelessly on a miserable Court One last year, they would handle their remaining champions with more care.

Thirty in November, Becker is planning for the future, though a personal fortune of pounds 60m is a healthy pension fund. A junior squad, Team Mercedes, will be unveiled next month with Becker as its self-appointed guru. But with Steffi Graf expected to retire soon, too, the centre of power is shifting imperceptibly away from Germany. "We have been playing a long time now and it starts to take its toll," Becker said.

Wimbledon might yet keep the mind and body in aspic for a year or two - he reached the third round yesterday with a straight sets win over Sweden's Thomas Johansson. There are, says Mrs Becker, only three seasons in her husband's year: before Wimbledon, Wimbledon, and after Wimbledon. Sooner or later, Wimbledon will have to contemplate life after Boris and the sorrow on parting will not all be one-sided.

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