WIMBLEDON, England — Oh, God, what a shot! The ball was a yellow blur coming down the line. Boris Becker dived for it and heard a slapping noise as he belly-flopped on the grass.
“I was waiting for it to go past my ear,” he would say. Instead he looked up and realized the noise had been Ivan Lendl’s shot whacking the net. And now the ball was dropping innocently onto Becker’s side.
Becker, like the movie soldier you thought was dead, lifted suddenly to one knee and, barely balanced, swiped that ball across the net past Lendl — and into the instant-replay archives of every TV station in the universe.
Wimbledon was his. Hail, the Boy King!
Yes, officially there were a few more points to win. But the angels were singing and a royal light came from the sky, and for Lendl to come back against that kind of kismet would not only have been impossible, it might have killed him.
“What did you think when he made that shot?” Lendl was asked after losing the Wimbledon final in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5.
“What could I think?” Lendl said, shrugging. “If I had a little more luck, the ball wouldn’t have tipped the net anyway.”
He had no luck. He had no chance. Boris Becker is the toughest thing to hit grass since the Toro 2000. And when he is serving well — as he was Sunday, in the most famous tennis match of the year — you might as well pack it up. “Boom Boom” they call him? “Boom Boom” he is.
“You like it here, yes?” someone asked him.
“It is my court, I think,” Becker said. “When I walk on Center Court, my skin, it feels pricks. . . .
“Goose bumps?” someone offered.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Goose bumps.” Czechmate! Well, there were a few of those in this match. True, most points were over with the serve or the service return. But in the third set, things came to life. Because here was blond-haired Becker — only 18, the defending champion — up, 2-0, in sets and virtually daring Lendl, the No. 1 player in the world, to win one from him.
Lendl had three chances. Set point at 5-4, 40-0. Becker saved it all three times. He came to the net, tough guy, and poked winners to the open court.
The sharks were nibbling at Lendl’s feet. He lost that game, fell victim to “The Shot” in the 12th game and — one point after that — sent a Becker serve into the net. That ended it. The line was cut, and the cheerless Czech splashed into the water, live feed for the critics once again.
“Is Becker the best player in the world now?” someone asked Lendl afterward.
“To be the best in the world you have to play very well over 12 months,” he said cooly.
True. And true, in between Wimbledon triumphs, Becker has won just two minor tournaments — while Lendl took the U.S. Open and the French. Yes, Lendl is, numerically, still No. 1. So you expect more class than he showed Sunday. After losing, he walked off the court alone — the tradition is both players exit together — rather than watch Becker pose for photos.
But enough on him. Catch this. Please. When they handed Becker the gold Wimbledon trophy, he leaned over to shake the Duchess of Kent’s hand and the trophy’s top fell off. The thing was what, 50, 60 years old? Glazed with ghostly tradition? And here it was, rolling across the grass. And what did Becker do?
He laughed like crazy. Laughed the laugh of someone too young to worry about embarrassment. In this age of grim, robot-like champions, that may have been the most reassuring moment of the year.
“What did the Duchess say after you picked up the trophy?” Becker was asked.
“She said it was probably my ambition to win Wimbledon four or five times like Borg.”
“And what did you say?” he was asked.
“I said, ‘See you in three years then.’ ” Call him champion Lovely. Thank heaven for someone with both a racket and a sense of humor. Lendl has been lacking the latter his entire career, and it has cost him — and his sport. Tennis quietly said a danke schoen for Becker’s arrival last year. Now it’s a double danke.
Most kids his age are washing their first cars and working at the supermarket. Yet Becker — who is a national hero in West Germany — already seems more controlled than John McEnroe, more pleasant than Jimmy Connors, and more interesting than a court full of Swedes.
“What do you think of Becker as a person?” Lendl was asked just before he left.
“I know him only as a player,” he said. “I don’t know the man — the young man, the boy, whatever you want to call him. Call him champion, yes?”
Becker serving, Becker laughing, Becker bouncing off the grass. Call him champion, yes. With a win for the books, and a shot for the ages.