“That was the best match I’ve ever had at Wimbledon.”
Boris Becker, after Friday’s semifinal WIMBLEDON, England — To understand what the old guy did, you must first understand what the young guy had been doing. The young guy, Andre Agassi, had been a lawn mower at Centre Court, he had cut, chopped, and left in a bag every player he’d faced since the tournament began. Five opponents. Five quick deaths. Agassi was not only the No. 1 seed coming into Friday’s semifinal, he was the hottest tennis player on Earth. He wore long white shorts and a white doo-rag, had a famous girlfriend in the guest box and throngs of adoring teens in the stands. Quite honestly, compared to Agassi, Boris Becker, in his tight, old-fashioned shorts, tucked-in shirt, close- cropped hair and scraggly red beard, looked like the physics professor playing against the coolest kid in class. Image? If you lined up a dozen ad execs they would run to Agassi like dogs running home.
But image is not everything.
They say every aging champion has one big moment left inside, one boomerang to the early days. Maybe we are watching that with Boris Becker. He hasn’t won a Grand Slam event in four years. And he hasn’t won this tournament, the one he loves the most, in six years. Then again, he’s never had the kind of karma he had Friday afternoon, July 7, 1995.
Ten years ago, to the day, Becker shook these hallowed grounds by walking in as an unseeded player and walking out with the trophy. He was only 17, the youngest Wimbledon champion ever, too young to vote, drink or even drive in many countries. His face was clean-shaven, and his thatch hair flopped wildly as he dove to the grass to save a volley. Over the years here, through his three titles and six finals, the dive became his trademark. You always knew Becker had played Wimbledon by the grass stains on his shorts.
On Friday, Becker, now the old guy at 27, unwrapped a fresh racket and stood across from the faster, younger, flashier Agassi. Boris had played a grueling match two days earlier, five long sets. And now, truthfully, no one gave him much chance. That was a mistake. “Nobody,” he would later warn,
“should ever underestimate me at Wimbledon.”
Three hours and four sets later, Agassi was in tatters. Becker was still standing, a big, nasty grass stain on his butt. Old guy’s weapon was patience
What a day. What a spectacular, unexpected swerve in the tennis year. Becker, hanging around at No. 4 in the world, had become such a part of the scenery that even the tabloids stopped writing about him. “What the hell can they say about me anymore?” he had asked, and it was true. He was old news. They preferred hot stuff, Brooke Shields cooing for Andre, Pete Sampras insulting British television, Goran Ivanisevic smashing his racket to pieces.
Becker? Former childhood-champ-turned-deep-thinker? Ho-hum. He bounced the ball, tossed up a serve . . .
And before he could blink, he was bleeding.
“For the first set and a half, I thought I was playing someone from outer space,” Becker said. Indeed, Agassi started the way he’d left off: ferocious. He broke Becker in the first game, and won the opening set in just 32 minutes. Becker is known for his serve, but Agassi returned it with ease. He made ridiculous passing shots and tremendous, eyeball winners down the line.
“I have never,” Becker marveled, “seen anyone hit a tennis ball the way Andre hit it that first set and a half.”
But the mark of a champion — and the difference between Becker and many others on this circuit — is how they use patience as a weapon. Becker kept waiting for the slightest chink in the armor. And sure enough, midway through the second set, Becker heard a small creak. He gritted down, began to play from the baseline — Agassi’s terrain — and finally won an Agassi service game. He raised his arms.
“That’s awfully bold,” someone said, considering Becker was still trailing 4-2.
But he knew something no one else did. Agassi was touchable. Becker won the next three games, won the tiebreaker for the set, and noticed how Agassi began walking off before the final smash. The top seed had begun to wilt.
Becker would not lose another service game. He would not lose another set. He ran Agassi ragged with deep backhands and delicate drop shots. Finally, with the evening shadows covering the grass, Becker blitzed a serve down the pipe and Agassi was done.
The old guy had made another Sunday afternoon. Marriage doesn’t change him
In the stands, Becker’s wife, Barbara, hugged a friend. She is a black woman, and Becker has endured terrible abuse for this in his often-racist homeland. He fought it, just as he fought the notion that getting married and becoming a father would rob him of his passion for tennis.
“It used to be normal that when you got a little older you got married,” he said. “I’m disappointed when they say he’s over the hill, he’s not hungry anymore. My desire hasn’t changed. . . . It’s just that, after a while, you can’t pretend to be a teenager.”
You think of Agassi, with his doo-rag and his nicknames for his cars, and you almost laugh.
Maybe Becker can stir this magic Sunday against 23-year-old Sampras. Maybe this is the one more title they talk about. In two days, 10 years apart, Becker has given Wimbledon an unexpected celebration of youth, and an unexpected celebration of experience. In the tunnel Friday, away from the cameras, he turned to a colleague and clenched a fist. “I’m going to make history,” he said.
Funny. I thought he just did.