by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You cry when you lose Wimbledon. Some cry on the inside, and some cannot help it, the tears flow right there on Centre Court, in front of everyone.

You wouldn’t think there was much in common between Jana Novotna, the blond Czech who hopes to win her first Grand Slam today, and Boris Becker, the redheaded German who Thursday waved good-bye to this tournament forever. But they do share this: They have both shed tears for Wimbledon.

Novotna’s tears, tears of defeat, have haunted her since 1993, when she was one point from a 5-1 lead in the last set of the championship match against Steffi Graf — and blew it. Depending on how cruel you are, Novotna was either outplayed or she choked. The sting hit her hard as she accepted the runner-up trophy from the Duchess of Kent, and she couldn’t help it, she began to cry, and buried her head in the duchess’ shoulder.

She has been paying for it ever since. “The Weeper At Wimbledon,” they called her. “The Crying Czech.” “The Bawling Blond.” You would have thought she committed murder, the way those teardrops stained her legacy. Every time Novotna plays Wimbledon, they bring it up again. She cried. Remember when she cried? Here in the land of the stiff upper lip, tears of defeat are a character flaw.

“I was a much different person then,” Novotna said this week, her eyes narrowed, her voice constantly on the defensive. “I had to prove to myself and everyone else that I was a good player.

“I am much calmer now.”

Translation: no tears. And good luck. For in that Graf defeat, at least Novotna could say she lost to the defending champion.

This afternoon, she is playing 16-year-old Martina Hingis, who, although the No. 1 player and the top seed, has never won Wimbledon. In fact, this is her first time beyond the fourth round in three tries. Novotna, 28, has the greater experience, and if she loses today, it may be less explainable than in 1993.

Novotna, stiff upper lip firmly in place now, said she was not worried.

“I’ve learned there are more important things in life.”

It’s Sampras’ living room now

Boris Becker always knew that. He was that rarest of champions, a man capable of hoisting a trophy into the sunshine while still noticing the world beyond his own shadow. He won Wimbledon when he was 17 — the youngest man to do so
— and he won it again the next year and he won it a few years later, when his nickname was “Boom Boom” because his serve was so overpowering.

Now Becker is almost 30, an elder statesman in the world of tennis. He has been coming here every year, his serve is still impressive, but he gets in line behind younger, more powerful players. On Thursday, in the quarterfinals, Becker took his game to Pete Sampras, the best in the world, and lost in four sets. At the net, as they shook hands, Becker said to Sampras, “That’s it for me here. This was my last Wimbledon.”

Sampras did a double take.

“I was kind of stunned,” he later admitted. “To me, Wimbledon and Boris went together. It was like his living room out there.”

Well, Boris is moving out of the house. On his way off the court, he turned to the unsuspecting fans, bowed twice, and shed a tear for losing Wimbledon, not on the scoreboard, but as a part of his life.

He wiped it away and was gone before anyone knew he was leaving.

Becker goes out with grace

Give Becker credit for doing what he has always done, following his heart. He has loved and honored this tournament like few other players, and he does not want to return each year falling from its grace.

“To come here as the No. 60 player in the world, praying to God that I get a good draw and win a couple of rounds, that’s not for me,” he said. “I’m the type of guy who wants to get to a tournament and have a chance to win it, and that’s not possible for me any more in Grand Slams. The two-week tournaments are too difficult on my body.

“I feel like I’ve come to the end of the road, with my head held up high. I feel relieved.”

Becker will be missed. Not only for his booming serve, his lunging drop shots, his clever returns or the way he threw his body all over the court. (All the players here wear white; Becker was the only one who wore green grass stains.)

He also will be missed for his clear love of this place. Even Thursday, knowing he was on his way out, he stopped during the match when a ball got away from a ball boy, and he and Becker both chased it, Becker smiling as if playing footsies with his son.

This is the kind of thing he always did, talking to people in the crowd, walking in through the regular entrances. During the rain delay Thursday, he went up into the royal box and sat there by himself, just looking around.

“Do you have anything to say to the fans here who have rooted for you all these years?” a British reporter asked him.

“I always tried to give them my best,” he said. “I will miss them as much as they miss me.”

It’s a pain in the neck, this tournament, what with all the interruptions, the bad weather, the pounded surface. But it gets to people. It touches them. It’s always wet at Wimbledon, they say, sometimes it’s rain and sometimes, well, sometimes it’s something else, coming from your eyes, coming from your heart.


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