Wimbledon '97: Becker story ends where it began

John Roberts on the glittering Wimbledon career of Boris Becker which came to a close yesterday
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The Independent Online
The sight of the strapping Boris Becker rising from his seat to greet her at the Champions' Dinner in 1985 prompted the wife of the chairman to turn to the young German's mother and remark upon his height.

"Is he six one, six two?" "No," Mrs Becker responded, "6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4."

No apology is made for repeating that story, which Buzzer Hadingham, the All England Club's chairman on that momentous day, has dined out on ever since. Apocryphal or not, it will gain currency by the season now that old "Boom-Boom" has left the sport's greatest stage.

It was appropriate that Becker should begin this year's tournament in a parade of champions, the winners of three or more singles titles, to mark the opening of the new No 1 Court, Wimbledon's first step towards the next century.

It would have been poetic had he ended his campaign with the singles trophy in his hands for a fourth time. But at least he bade auf wiedersehen on his beloved Centre Court after losing to Pete Sampras, the finest player in the world.

Becker, it will be remembered, was the runner-up to Sampras in 1995. Afterwards the spectators insisted that he follow the American on a lap of honour, sensing perhaps that it would be his last appearance in the final.

Characteristically, he confounded many observers by winning the 1996 Australian Open, his sixth and final Grand Slam singles title. He quite fancied his chances of a fourth Wimbledon championship, but a freak injury to his right wrist caused him to retire during his third-round match against Neville Godwin, of South Africa, last year. Since then glimpses of Becker in full cry have been rare.

No matter. Those fortune enough to have witnessed his phenomenal initial triumph will always be able to call to mind the unseeded 17-year-old whose power, athleticism and personality dominated the scene.

An Italian colleague, Alfonso Fumarola of Corriere Dello Sport, recounts the reaction of a cashier on the first floor of Dino's restaurant in Kensington. "The boy with red hair," she said excitedly. "He was in every night cutting spaghetti with his coach."

In Becker's home town, Leimen, near Heidelberg, bagels shaped in a B were on sale, and the members of the Blau-Weiss Tennis Club, where he learned to play, gathered in front of a television set and watched an event which had hitherto seemed improbable, the coronation of a German Wimbledon champion.

"I was born as a tennis player on the grass courts of London," is Becker's way of prefacing his career. And his most telling comment is in accord with Kipling's line about meeting with triumph and disaster inscribed over the entrance to the Centre Court. After his second-round defeat by Peter Doohan, a little-known Australian, in 1987, Becker said, "I lost a tennis match. It was not a war. Nobody died."

Often outspoken, frequently stubborn, sometimes perceived as arrogant, liable to change coaches at the drop of a point, he was always a tremendous competitor who brought great presence to the court, particularly the one he departed yesterday.

Although he laughed it off when asked if he was in the market for the Lordship of Wimbledon when Earl Spencer's title was up for sale, the appendage would have sat well with Boris Becker.