NEW YORK — He has had these days before, days where he comes out and plays like the Boy King. And the perfect thing, when this happens, would be if Aaron Krickstein’s brain just blew a fuse and he was left with only his body and his racket. Then he could continue doing whatever he is doing, doing his best stuff, which, in the second set of the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open on Thursday was simply this: beating the shorts off defending champion Boris Becker.
Instead, again, the voices started in his head and Krickstein was a dead man. After zipping through the first set like an executive with a dental appointment — 6-3, easy, nothing to it — and after taking the first two games of the second set he said to himself, “Hey, I win a few more and I’m up two sets. Hey, I’ve never even won a set from Becker before. Hey . . . I . .
And it all came apart. He began to think too much. He hit into the net. He hit long. He watched a Becker serve whiz past him at 116 m.p.h. and he dropped
his confidence and the next three sets.
This happens to Krickstein, often in the biggest tournaments, and this, combined with a clipboard full of injuries, has left people with the impression that he is somehow damaged goods, like one of the Wright brothers’
early test planes, sputtering into the sky and then crashing to earth. Doctors and coaches patch him up and spin his propeller, while the tennis world shrugs and goes on to someone else. When will Aaron Krickstein take flight? That’s what they have been asking for years now, as if winning more than $1 million and reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open (last year) and getting as high as No. 6 in the world is somehow worth less than stale bread.
Ah, well. This is what you get from tennis, where you are a phenom at 17 and a has-been at 20. But know this: there is nothing wrong with Aaron Krickstein that a few Grand Slam finals wouldn’t fix. The kid just needs to get over this hump and tell those voices to shut up. Winning a major has been elusive Of course, this is easier said than done. And Krickstein knows it. Now, after falling to Becker 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 3-6, the kid who grew up swinging at Lochmoor and the Franklin Racquet Club was standing alone in a corridor of Louis Armstrong Stadium, the sweat still soaking the ends of his shaggy brown hair. A few yards way, Becker was being interviewed by the press. Now the shoulda’s and coulda’s began.
“I’ve been floating around the quarters and semis for a long time and it plays with your mind after a while,” Krickstein admitted. “People say, ‘He’s a good player, but he can’t win a big tournament.’
“What happened today shouldn’t happen to me. When I play my best, I know I can beat these guys. But then I lose my concentration. I think too much about the shots I missed.”
A pause. “Maybe I ought to talk to somebody about it, I don’t know.”
He shrugged and looked at his feet. Outside they were cleaning the court for the night match, which featured Andre Agassi, who has been getting a lot of ink the past year, the kind Krickstein once got, because Agassi is young and gifted and dresses like Carmen Miranda. Like Krickstein, Agassi has never won a major. But people remain fascinated because he wears Day-Glo colors and acts like an idiot.
Day-Glo was never Krickstein’s style. He is quiet, shy, he still gives teenage shrugs when he talks. “Maybe I should start wearing green outfits,” he said, laughing, but he knew it wouldn’t work. Forgotten at 23? When he first turned pro, seven years ago, as a high school junior, no one could count all the rainbows ahead for Aaron Krickstein. He was the next Connors, the next American hero, the next whatever. But potential in tennis is like rocket fuel, it burns fast. It flew Krickstein to within 20 feet of the mountaintop, then dropped him on a ledge. He has been looking for a foothold since.
“You know, I’m 23. If I were just getting out of college now, everyone would be saying, ‘Wow. Look at him. he got to the quarterfinals of the Open.”
Instead they’re saying, “There goes Krickstein again, the guy who only hits from the baseline.” And then they talk about Agassi and Michael Chang and Pete Sampras as the “young hopes” of American tennis. They forget Krickstein was the youngest male ever to win a pro tournament, they forget that he has a metal pin in his foot the size of a magic marker. They forget that he has had more stress fractures and strained ligaments than the Pistons have in a season.
Nobody wants to hear it. There was a point in Thursday’s match where, sliding down the tubes, Krickstein woke up, he passed Becker, he aced him, he hit like a demon and won the first three games of the fourth set. But then, as if the gods were scolding him, he became timid, blew easy shots. Becker won the next six games as if it were expected.
This is the difference: champions always expect to win. Krickstein might develop that, if he ever gets a few wonderful days in Grand Slam events where his brain goes dead and he can just whack the ball to all the right places.
You hope he does. He has earned that much. But if he doesn’t, there is hardly shame in reaching the quarterfinals of the biggest events, and saying the only tennis players in the world better than you can fit around a dinner table. Maybe, one day, Krickstein can think about that. Maybe we all should.