Becker measures return in cool, collected manner Win over Chang comes 5 years after last Slam title

January 29, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The last time Boris Becker won a Grand Slam title, he shook hands with Ivan Lendl and sprinted out of Flinders Park to skip among the trees.

He was 23 when he won that Australian Open and the No. 1 ranking with it in 1991, a young, famous German craving time alone to collect his thoughts and savor his accomplishments.

Becker is 28 now, and he no longer needs or wants to be alone with success. His first reaction early yesterday morning after Michael Chang's last, lunging passing shot of this Australian Open landed beyond the baseline was to turn and look long and hard in the direction of his wife, Barbara.

Becker's next move was to raise his arms in the air and salute the crowd. No mad dash up the tunnel. No wild gesticulations. Only measured, mature satisfaction, and if you believe Becker, mild surprise.

"It's been five years since I last spoke to you," Becker, the fourth seed, told the crowd after his 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Chang. "And to tell you the truth, I didn't think I had another Grand Slam in me."

Becker has won six Grand Slam titles, the same number as his longtime rival and contemporary Stefan Edberg. But while Edberg has dropped steadily in the last two years, Becker has managed to reverse his fading fortunes, retooling his attacking game, whipping his powerful physique back into top shape and drawing strength from the support of his wife, with whom he has a 2-year-old son, Noah.

In the past seven months, he has been a finalist at Wimbledon, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open, the winner of the ATP Tour Championship and the winner in Australia.

"I just didn't have the fire anymore to be a great tennis player," Becker said of his slump in 1993, when he fell out of the top 10. "But then about two years ago, I changed, starting with my manager to my home. I changed my life completely with one goal of trying to get back to that top level and, luckily, I found a wife who supported me very much.

"She always said, 'Please do it one more time for me because I have never seen you as a Grand Slam winner.' I told her, 'I'm trying my heart out, it's not that easy.' "

It certainly was not easy in Australia. Becker was down two sets to one against Greg Rusedski in his first match; he was down two sets to love against Thomas Johansson in his second match. But he rallied, found his timing and proceeded to lose only two more sets in a tournament where he never had advanced past the third round since his victory in 1991.

"For me it's a different position than five years ago," Becker said. "Now I'm in the autumn of my career, and I'm not taking anything for granted. I still believe that I have a couple of more big ones in me. As long as my wife and my son are there and supportive, and it doesn't look that I am embarrassing myself in my shorts, then I'm going to do it."

For Chang, who won his only Grand Slam title at the 1989 French Open championship, it was one more setback in his attempt to win another major. Last June, he lost in the final of the French to Thomas Muster.

"Obviously, it's a bit disappointing losing in two Grand Slam finals," said Chang, seeded fifth. "But all the great players have to go through that.

"Sometimes people forget that I'm only 23 years old, turning 24 next month. I still feel like my best tennis is ahead of me, and although my first Grand Slam title came in 1989, that was, in many ways, very unexpected. It was a nice surprise, but maybe people after that expected me to go on to win many, many Grand Slams. And that is not an easy task to do."

Mixed doubles championship

Mark Woodforde, Australia, and Larisa Neiland (1), Latvia, def. Luke Jensen, Ludington, Mich., and Nicole Arendt, Gainesville, Fla., 4-6, 7-5, 6-0.

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