Disillusioned Becker finds grass isn't always greener on Wimbledon side

July 08, 1991|By Mitch Albom | Mitch Albom,Knight-Ridder

WIMBLEDON, England -- Well, here's one good thing about unknown Michael Stich's winning the Wimbledon championship yesterday: It put Boris Becker out of his misery. The way Boris was suffering all day, screaming at himself, hiding beneath a towel, making faces like a kid who just tasted liver for the first time, I thought he might run to the top of the stadium and throw himself off.

"Will someone teach me how to play this game?!" Boris screamed in German. And also:

"What is wrong with me?"

"Why can't I hit over the net?!"

"Nothing! I have nothing!"

Never in the history of my tennis watching have I seen a more melancholy loser. I felt like giving him some roses to stop and smell, or at least a straitjacket, so he wouldn't hurt himself. Becker, whom I greatly admire because he is a humble, intelligent, thoughtful sports star -- in other words, a complete oddity -- has become the Hamlet of tennis, full of riches and princely fame, yet cursed with doubt and introspection. He almost quit the game last year, saying the fire inside had died. Yesterday, he almost became the first player ever fined for self-abuse.

"At this moment, I feel very old," he sighed after losing in straight sets to Stich.

Becker, of course, is 23.

More on this in a moment. First, to the champion. What a Stich! Ba-dum-bump. A Stich In Time! Ba-dum-bump. Stich and Stones Will Break Your Bones! Ba-dum-bump.

There. That gets the stupid headlines out of the way. Now. Who is this guy? Never been in a Grand Slam final before? No. 750 in the world two years ago? Likes the Bill Cosby show? All that is true. So is this: In the mid-'80s, Stich was a student with no plans to become a pro athlete. One day, he sat in his house in Hamburg and watched countryman Becker win his first Wimbledon at 17.

"Hmm," thought Stich, 16 at the time, "that looks neat."

Try it. You'll like it.

And yesterday he did, shooting down Becker the way a bazooka shoots down a pigeon. And Becker is his friend.

Obviously, what we have here is a late bloomer. Never mind that the scores were close (6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4). Stich, 22, was in control every moment of this match. His serve was a Nolan Ryan fastball, a Wayne Gretzky slap shot; there was no dealing with it. Becker could not handle Stich's first serve; he could not handle ++ his second serve; if there was such a thing as a third serve, it would have eluded Becker as well.

This, if you know tennis, is the ultimate weapon for grasscourt tennis; a big serve. Maybe that's why there's almost no grass-court tournaments anymore. Who wants to watch cannon fire?

But Wimbledon, ah, Wimbledon. It has always rewarded power. And Stich, with a serve that clocked 126 mph, had power to spare. "Now I know what people mean when they say they have a special feeling playing on Centre Court," Stich, a tall, dark-haired German, said after his historic win, which made him only the seventh man to win a Wimbledon final in his first try. "I felt like I could get to every ball today."

Well, not every ball. There were all those moon balls and rotten ricochets that kept caroming off Becker's racket. Stich didn't have to get those; they were all out. Way out. In fact, more than half the balls Stich served yesterday, Becker could not return: 51 out of 100. More than half? Goodness. That racket should be in a cage.

"There was no pressure on me today," Stich said. "I read the papers and saw how everyone was picking Boris to win, just as everyone was picking Stefan [Edberg] to win before. I said to myself, 'Fine; I'll just go out and play.'

"To be honest, I had nothing to lose. And Boris, I think, felt like he had to win."

Stich beat Edberg, the defending Wimbledon champion, in the semifinals.

Boris. Yes. Let's get back to him. He didn't exactly have a great time at the old tennis yard this tournament. For one thing, his matches kept getting put on last, and then it would rain, and he would have to come back the next day to finish. He wound up playing seven matches in 10 days, including three straight on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That's one weary cowboy.

On top of that, there was an undercurrent of jealousy that somehow, Andre Agassi was stealing Becker's thunder. Agassi wasn't even on the roster when Boris was winning his three championships here, yet Mr. Hairy Belly Button seemed to get top placement, in the headlines and on the courts. "It all took its toll," Becker moaned.

That was obvious from the first game yesterday, which Stich won, breaking Becker's serve, and it carried to the final point, Stich whipping a forehand return past his downcast buddy. "Sometimes you have to wait until after for a defeat to hit you," Boris said. "This time, it hit me during the match. I knew if he was not going to make big mistakes today, then I'm not going to win, because I did not have it."

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