Boris Becker: a champion who hasn't been spoiled by success

He is everything you want a champion -- not only in tennis but in anything -- to be. Pleasant. Respectful. Poised. Cognizant of a responsibility beyond the arena. Unjaded and unspoiled. And, at 18, he's only going to get better.

The youth and talent are a given; the acrobatic shots and go-for-it style not only are crowd-pleasers but they're a cornerstone in his game, not a faceless, baseline barrage like Bjorn Borg and his Swedish clones have unleashed; the strawberry blond thatch of hair, giving him a Dennis the Menace quality, is a delightful bonus.

In short, it appears as if Boris Becker will be the Kaiser of the Courts for the next decade, or as much of it as he wants to. As they say in his West German homeland, Becker "uber Alles.

Ivan Lendl is still officially on top, having unseated John McEnroe, who now says he's hungry for No. 1 again -- even though he concedes his happiness is more important than tennis success. Mats Wilander of Sweden, No. 2 in the world, is battling burnout. Feisty Jimmy Connors, the 33-year-old teen-ager, is still dangerous, but his shots just don't pack the sting they once held.

Into this tableau de tennis waltzes Becker, who despite his youth has already won two Wimbledon titles, sparkled in Davis Cup play, and reached the No. 3 world ranking. Coached by G"unther Bosch and guided shrewdly by Ion Tiriac, he is well aware that he is light-years ahead of what your basic 18-year-old (or 28-year-old or 38-year-old) has accomplished.

Becker is not boastful, but he answers truthfully when questioned about his achievements. He is proud of the heights he's scaled -- ``I have to present myself good,'' he said, explaining his responsibility as heir ascendant to the sport's throne.

While Becker has taken Europe by storm in the last year, he remained, until recently, a bit of a phantom figure in the United States. He was out early a year ago in the US Open, playing on the new-for-him DecoTurf II hard courts. He won an indoor tournament in Chicago earlier this year, but hadn't done much else on this continent until the last couple of weeks, when he finished runner-up to Lendl at the Volvo International in Stratton Mountain, Vt., then won the Association of Tennis Professionals tourney last weekend in Toronto.

He said he had entered these two events because they had the same surface as the US Open, which begins next week in New York.

What he has done over the past two weeks, besides build a media following, is defuse a couple of grapevine reports about his game, especially the one that claimed ``you can beat Becker if you stay close, because he's not tough enough mentally . . . yet.''

The muscular youth, who looks as though he could fit in nicely as a blocking back in football's old single-wing offense, withstood an 0-4 start in a third-set tiebreaker against Kevin Curren, his 1985 Wimbledon finals foe, in the third round of the Volvo. Then he mastered McEnroe in what has the makings of a terrific rivalry -- if John does, in fact, return to the level he showed before taking a six-month sabbatical. Becker couldn't quite handle Lendl in the final, but he went all the way in Toronto, topping Stefan Edberg in three sets in the finale.

As he noted in Vermont, ``I've played more important matches [than many players] . . . [and] being No. 3, and the Wimbledon champion, and my Davis Cup experience, gives me an advantage. Other people, at the big points, are usually afraid to make the point.''

Some skeptics also have suggested that while Becker's booming serve suits him well for the grass courts of Wimbledon, he doesn't have the all-around talent to consistently win -- again, ``yet'' -- on other surfaces.

Even when Becker ousted McEnroe in the semis of the Volvo, saving four match points in the third-set tiebreaker, Bic Mac refused to give the teen-ager his due.

Becker acknowledges he needs more experience on hard courts, and says he intends to get it. ``I hope I'm learning something in every match,'' he adds. ``I'm still only 18, and I hope I'm going to be wise at 24 or 25.''

He also relishes the thought of playing McEnroe more -- ``he's a tennis genius,'' the youth says.

So next week he retackles New York at the US Open. Is he intimidated? Not very, he says.

``It's exciting, very exciting -- the city, the noise from the people, 15,000 people so loud you can't hear yourself think. . . . I'm looking forward to it.'' He also wants to make amends for his early exit a year ago when Sweden's Joakim Nystrom bounced him in the round of 16.

One big ingredient in Becker's appeal is his little-boy, respectful approach. Although he knows he's one of the sport's leaders, and a solid crowd-pleaser, he exhibits none of the spoiled-brat tactics that have cost McEnroe the following his talents otherwise would have won.

At the same time, he has ``learned a lot about life'' in the past 12 months. He has matured nicely, his hatband undoubtedly remaining the same size as a year ago.

Said one West Germany reporter, ``He is still very big with the German people because he came from a small town and he has become very successful with a lot of hard work. It is something we all can relate to.''

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