A decade ago, a strapping, freckled and fearless 17-year-old loose cannon from Germany turned Wimbledon into his own personal demolition derby, rising from the ranks of the anonymous and crashing his way to the 1985 championship.
It was a phenomenal launch for what has been a nonpareil career, especially here at Wimbledon, the Grand Slam tournament he uses as his touchstone, his looking glass and his motivation to continue hauling his jaded bones around the tennis circuit.
He does it all for the chance that he might win this Grand Slam event one more time.
Friday, Boris Becker gave himself that chance.
Still strapping and still fearless, but painfully aware that his tennis future is becoming more finite by the year, Becker seized the moment in spectacular fashion and earned the right to meet the defending champion Pete Sampras.
Sampras elevated himself into position to become the first man since Bjorn Borg to win this title three years running by ousting the same opponent, Goran Ivanisevic, he victimized in last year’s final. Just as then, this match went the limit: 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. In Sunday’s final, each player will be in pursuit of a sixth Grand Slam singles title.
Just as it seemed Becker was well on his way to a straight-set defeat at the hands of Andre Agassi, who had beaten him the last eight times they’d met, the imperious German took the wind out of the sails of this Slam’s pint-sized pirate with a 2-6, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 7-6 (7-1) comeback victory.
“I’ve never seen anybody hit the tennis ball the way he did in the first set and a half,” Becker said of Agassi, who used his groundstrokes like flamethrowers and treated Becker like a cross between a target and a punching bag.
“I just had to hope for a third set; I just had that little light. This must be the best match I’ve ever had at Wimbledon,” said Becker, whose record of 62-8 here is the finest of any active player.
Trailing 6-2 and 4-1 against the topseeded and No. 1-ranked Agassi, Becker turned into a bully instead of turning tail.
“Nobody should underestimate me; he did a major mistake at 4-1 when he didn’t finish me off,” said Becker, who literally scared Agassi off the court for the remainder of the match.
After breaking Agassi for 4-2, Becker roared and raised his arms like a prizefighter and turned what should have been a mere blip on Agassi’s radar into a match-altering event.
“When that lead slipped away, I think Boris started playing a bit more aggressively, and when he got back on serve, I never quite had the confidence again,” said a crestfallen Agassi, who’d had nothing but confidence heading into this encounter against a man he “owned,” at least so far as the record book was concerned.
The loss didn’t do any damage to Agassi’s No. 1 ranking, but it did leave him near tears as he walked off Centre Court. Like Becker before him, Agassi secured his first-ever Slam crown, and proved he had a champion’s credentials, at Wimbledon in 1992.
He had set his sights on an AllAmerican final against Sampras, the player he defeated this year at the Australian Open - the event that paved the way for his seizure of Sampras’ No. 1 standing.
But once Becker bowled him over with his determination in the second set, Agassi never recovered.
The court, like his baggy tennis whites, simply looked too big for him, and so did the man across the net, a man who just happens to be coached by Nick Bollettieri, Agassi’s mentorturned-nemesis following their acrimonious split in 1993.
“We had a good feeling going into this,” said Bollettieri, who only Friday morning provided Becker with a letter full of motivational hints in the matter of upsetting Agassi’s momentum and morale.
If Agassi had a good feeling, he lost it after an hour.
“I feel like after that second set, I never emotionally rose to the occasion,” said Agassi, who swatted feebly at Becker’s first serves in both tie breakers and was twice humiliated by second-serve aces from the German in the third set. When the chalk dust had settled, Becker had 22 aces in all.
The breakthrough against Agassi catapulted Becker into his seventh Wimbledon final in 11 visits; he won here in 1985, 1986 and 1989, but he hasn’t reached a Wimbledon final since he fell to archrival Michael Stich in 1991, the same year he won the last of his five Slam singles titles at the Australian Open.
With this rousing semifinal performance, Becker left himself just one victory short of a marvelous 10th anniversary celebration and a fourth career Wimbledon crown.
But to achieve his end, he’ll have to wrestle the title away from two-time defending champion Sampras, who Friday described himself as “ravenous to three-peat” on Centre Court.
Fragile in the earlier rounds, Sampras, unlike Agassi, saved his best tennis for his best opponent and improved his undefeated streak here to 20 matches.
And Sampras needed to have all of his weapons in working order against Ivanisevic, who actually kept his wandering mind and his breakable racket intact for a full five sets.
Sampras saved six of eight break points and overlooked Ivanisevic’s 38 aces in the course of a five-set victory that both he and Ivanisevic called lucky for its winner and unlucky for its loser.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: At a glance Results - Men’s singles: No. 2 Pete Sampras and No. 3 Boris Becker advanced to the final. Stat of the day - Goran Ivanisevic served 38 aces and won 20 straight points on his serve but still lost a five-set semifinal to Pete Sampras. Quote of the Day - “Nobody should underestimate me at Wimbledon. Even when I’m down, I still have a chance.” Boris Becker, on whether he was surprised to come back from 2-6, 1-4 down to beat Andre Agassi in a four-set semifinal match. Today on Centre Court - Women’s final: Steffi Graf vs. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
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