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Sampras Toasts Becker At German's Last Call

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 1997; Page C 1

WIMBLEDON, England, July 3 — Boris Becker ceded control of Wimbledon — the place he likes to call "home" — to Pete Sampras two years ago, when Sampras beat him in the final to claim his third consecutive Wimbledon title. Today, Becker officially handed Sampras the keys.

In a quarterfinal match between two of Wimbledon's most accomplished champions, Becker fell to Sampras, 6-1, 6-7, (7-5), 6-1, 6-4, on Centre Court, then leaned across the net and told his American rival that he had just played his final match at Wimbledon. At 29, Becker has decided he no longer feels strong enough to win the two-week Grand Slam tournaments, and he said today that — with the possible exception of this year's U.S. Open — he will limit what is left of his career to the one-week events.

"I think it's a very good moment right now," said Becker, who has played in seven Wimbledon finals and won three. "I feel like I've come to the end of the road, with my head held up high and I feel like I'm still playing good tennis. I always wanted to go out on top, and I feel right now I'm on top, on top of the mountain."

Sampras was the first to hear Becker's news today, and he did a double take when Becker whispered the words to him, then asked him to repeat them to make sure he was not imagining things. Stunned, Sampras walked back to his seat in a daze, then waited for Becker to leave the court. As the two walked off, Becker paused, bowed twice to the crowd and took a slow look around the place he long has loved. Then he waved one last time to the adoring fans, who cheered loudly despite not knowing they had just witnessed a poignant moment in Wimbledon history.

"Wimbledon and Boris went together," Sampras said. "This is where he made his mark as a 17-year-old, and it was like his living room out there. He'll be missed. He'll be missed by the fans and the tournament."

Sampras, who said today's match "felt like a final," is the lone seed remaining in the men's draw and will meet Australian Todd Woodbridge — a winner over German Nicolas Kiefer — in the semifinals on Friday. Germany's Michael Stich and France's Cedric Pioline will meet in the other semifinal, the two combining today to oust local heroes Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, respectively, and break hearts all over Britain in the process.

Stich, a 28-year-old former champion, has said he will retire at the end of this season, and Becker's announcement was yet another blow to German tennis. Becker, a six-time Grand Slam champion, won all the Slams at least once, save for the French Open, and is one of the most popular players in German history. And German Steffi Graf, one of the best players ever in women's tennis, also is contemplating retirement after her recent knee surgery.

"It's just something which is very unfortunate for German tennis fans," Becker said. "But for me it was something I thought about for a long time."

Becker made his decision final when he looked at this year's Wimbledon draw, and saw that he might meet Sampras in the quarterfinal round. To Becker, win or lose, it seemed like the fates were telling him that this was the right way to end his Wimbledon career. He knew the match would be on Centre Court, his rightful Wimbledon arena. And of all the players he had faced in his 14-year career, he considered Sampras the best.

"I was fortunate enough to play with McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, even Borg a little bit," Becker said. "And for me, [Sampras] was always the most complete player. He had the power, he had the speed, he had the touch. ... I was always felt he was, for me, the best player ever."

Sampras was a 13-year-old playing a junior tournament in northern California when Becker began his long love affair with Wimbledon in 1985, the year he won his first title as a precocious 17-year-old. Despite the eight-hour time difference, Sampras awoke before sunrise in California to watch that match on television, and today he remembered how he marveled at the teenager with the bright red hair.

"It was such a shock to everyone," Sampras said, "and that was my first memory of Boris when he won here at 17."

Today, though, it was Becker's turn to marvel at Sampras, who has grown into the world's best player and proved why once again this afternoon. Nicknamed "Boom Boom" because of his big serve, Becker has a game quite similar to Sampras's, but even he was wowed by the way Sampras played against him this time.

His spectacular serve looking even more spectacular on the Centre Court grass, Sampras hit 19 aces in the match and lost just two service points in the third set. His only real stumble came in the second-set tiebreaker, when Becker made his one big push of the match.

Trailing 5-3 in that tiebreaker, Becker won four straight points to take the set, one of those points coming on a beautiful forehand return that Becker placed so close to the line it looked as if it were in by only a few blades of grass.

"I had to play at a very high level to beat him," Sampras said. "He missed a couple of shots here and there that maybe he might not have missed if he was more in his prime. But I still find him very tough to beat."

Sampras started today's match by winning the first game at love, three of the points in that game won on aces. He broke Becker in the next game, and was up 3-1 and serving when the rain came and the two were ushered off the court.

The rain lasted more than three hours, and, in the middle of the delay, Becker took a book and sat in the last row of the nearly vacant Royal Box, which is located at one end of Centre Court. Spotting him, it was natural to think that the demonstrative and outgoing Becker was simply giving the bored, rain-soaked Wimbledon crowd yet another an amusing treat. But that wasn't the case.

According to Becker, the locker room, the players' lounge — all the usual waiting zones — were too loud and crowded. He wanted quiet. He wanted peace.

So Becker did what any person would do in those circumstances. He went to his living room, where he knew, as always, he would feel at home.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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