Jennifer Frey

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Becker Draws Curtain on His Class Act

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 1997; Page D9

WIMBLEDON, England—What Boris Becker did at the All England club on Thursday has always been a hard thing for top athletes to do. At the age of 29, still dangerous on the court, still a threat to win, still in position to earn millions in his profession, Becker walked away from playing Grand Slam events, tennis's main showplaces. He looked at himself, and his game, and he decided that though he was still good, he was not good enough to meet his own lofty standards. So he let it go.

There are lists and lists of athletes who have not been able to do what Becker did, and who have diminished themselves and their sports as a result. Take the entire boxing industry, for example, starting with Sugar Ray Leonard and his comeback attempts, the last a mockery of a fight. Leonard admitted that he was unable to give up that adrenaline rush that he only experienced in the ring. And it didn't really matter if he looked like a fool in the process.

Becker wasn't going to let that happen to him. Granted, Becker isn't quitting tennis altogether—he will represent Germany in the Davis Cup in September, and he is certain to play the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover, Germany, this November. The latter always feels like a Becker home match and don't think that he hasn't thought about how that event would be the best place for him to completely retire.

It is Wimbledon, though, that always has been the defining tournament for the seven-time finalist, and Wimbledon where it was most appropriate for him to end his impressive Grand Slam career. He played one of his greatest rivals, Pete Sampras, on tennis's great stage, and he acquitted himself well in the four-set loss on Thursday. Afterward, he bowed politely to the Duchess of Kent, waved goodbye to the crowd, and stepped off Centre Court for the last time. There was no farewell tour, no long tributes. Just a simple whispered message across the net to Sampras.

"It's a very tough decision to make, when you're going to walk away from your sport," said Sampras, 25, who finds it hard to fathom since he is on top of the world and still seemingly climbing. "This is what he's been doing since he's a young kid and you know he's going to do what makes him happy and what's best for his family. And if this is what he wants to do, you can't talk bad about it."

Sampras has always marveled at how Becker handled the mania that came with his celebrity in Germany, where he is treated like Michael Jordan is treated in the States. As reserved and private as he can be, Sampras cannot imagine living Becker's life on the tennis circuit. And that life—and its responsibilities—is a part of why Becker moved to Florida. He gave tennis everything for 14 years. Now he wants a little peace. "I always wished it was me who made the decision, not my body or anything else," Becker said on Thursday. "After I got injured at Wimbledon last year, I swore to myself, if I'm ever able to come back at Wimbledon and be able to play well, I think it's the time to say goodbye."

After Becker's graceful news conference Thursday, countryman Michael Stich's similar announcement the following evening seemed almost laughable. Stich (who only accelerated what was an already planned retirement) has played his entire career in Becker's shadow.

And there is no doubt that it galled him when Becker upstaged him on the day that Stich qualified for the Wimbledon semifinals, which was no small feat considering the way he had been playing this season. So instead of basking in the applause, Stich was all but ignored, his triumph an afterthought in comparison to Becker's stunning announcement.

It's understandable, then, that Stich was a little upset. But instead of making a classy exit, Stich decided to dismiss Becker without a compliment, and then go after Sampras, as well. Given the opportunity to praise Sampras—as Becker had, with such openness the previous day—Stich couldn't even bring himself to say something polite.

"That's what he does—only think about tennis and nothing else—and that's the way he does his career, and that's great for him," Stich said.

"I cared about a lot of other things in life and, you know, he is a person who just focuses on tennis, day and night."

Now, Becker is no saint, and he's had his share of ugly tennis moments. There was the time in 1995, when he lost a close match to Thomas Muster and accused the Austrian of drug use. There was the time, also in 1995, at the U.S. Open, when he whined about how the Nike-signed Americans got all the good courts and court times because of the power of American advertising (and he probably wasn't wrong on that point, though it was childish to keep harping on it).

And there was the time in 1994, when he asked for a bathroom break during a Wimbledon match and instead got a massage went he went off the court in a display of unsportsmanlike behavior.

But, more often than not, Becker has been a good sport, and a gentleman. In 1984, when he was 16, Becker broke his ankle during his first-round match here on Court 2. In pain and terribly disappointed, Becker nonetheless insisted on crawling off his stretcher so he could shake hands with his opponent.

That afternoon was Becker's first in the Wimbledon spotlight. Thursday was his last. And, to Becker's everlasting credit, they both were handled with the utmost dignity.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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