Wimbledon '97: Curtain falls on the Becker era

As Pete Sampras reached the semi-finals, 'Boom-Boom' reached the end of the line. Guy Hodgson reports
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The Independent Online
It was billed as the meeting of the triple champions and potentially the match of Wimbledon 1997, instead proved to be Boris Becker's valediction. Pete Sampras reached his fifth semi-final in six years; the German announced his retirement.

The 29-year-old champion of 1985, 1986 and 1989 and four-times runner- up revealed he would not be returning to the All England Club. "That's it for me," he said. "This is my last time at Wimbledon. I feel it's a good moment to go."

The announcement followed a 6-1, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4 defeat by the American top seed but if you wanted a true representation, it would be best to ignore the second set. Becker pickpocketed that as surely as if he had slipped his hand into his opponent's tennis bag. Yet the truth was that he was comprehensively destroyed.

Becker knew it, too, and by the end he looked thoroughly demoralised, shrieking at his errors, hangdog in his demeanour. He was reminiscent of Jimmy Connors facing John McEnroe in the 1984 final in that everything he tried simply could not cope with the wizardry heading his way. Becker used to blast opponents off court, yesterday he was outclassed by a Sampras in incandescent form.

It was the fear of being ordinary that forced his hand. "I feel like I don't want to come back being 60 in the world and praying to God I get a good draw to win a couple of rounds. That's not my style. I'm the type of guy who goes into a tournament and who likes to have a chance of winning it. That's not possible any more in Grand Slams."

"I've come to the end of the road with my head held high and I feel I'm still playing good tennis. I feel right now I'm on top of the mountain. I can only go down."

The tone of yesterday's match was set from the beginning. Becker, once known as "Boom-Boom" because of his service, was broken in the first game and lost the set in 25 minutes. The statistic for first serves in said everything: 70 per cent for Sampras, 27 for Becker.

In the second set the German clung on, barely threatening Sampras but somehow resisting the waves of power and invention coming over from the other side of the net. Sampras would surely take the tie-break; incredibly he lost it 7-5.

Would Sampras, Wimbledon's champion for three successive years from 1993 to 1995, crack at this injustice? There was more chance of the All England Club painting advertising logos on their lawns.

The American took the third set at a gallop and then broke Becker early and decisively in the fourth, winning in 2hr 2min. When Sampras serves, volleys and passes like that he is virtually impossible to beat as Todd Woodbridge may find out today.

At the end the two great champions met at the net, Becker stopping to chat to the irresistable force that had persuaded him he was no longer an immoveable object. He might have said "Good luck", but it proved to be "Goodbye".

"When he told me I was kind of stunned," Sampras said. "Wimbledon and Boris go together. This is where he made his mark as a 17-year-old. It was like his living room out there. He'll be missed by the fans and the tournament.

"I have a sombre feeling although I feel honoured in a way that this was his last match. I've always felt Boris is a class act on and off court and we've had some incredible matches in the past."

Becker has won six Grand Slam tournaments, the last in Australia 18 months ago, but before that his last great prize was in 1991. Age and injury had reined in a career that threatened to sweep all before it when he won Wimbledon 12 years ago.

"In a two-week tournament, where you sometimes play back-to-back, my body just doesn't take it any more," he said. "With my wrist injury last year I had strong doubts about ever coming back, but I always wished it was me who makes the decision, not my body or something else."

Did he have anything he wanted to say to the fans? "I've felt at home here," he replied. "I felt like I was one of them. They knew how to treat me and I was always trying to give them my best which is why it's my favourite tournament. I'll miss them as much as they'll miss me hopefully."

At the end of his match yesterday Becker walked with Sampras towards the locker-room and then allowed the American to go ahead, pausing to make an exaggerated gesture of thanks to the Centre Court crowd. It was his final bow.

John Roberts, page 30