Because the weather at Wimbledon has been so horrific, spectators at Centre Court often have been AWOL during matches. They leave for a drink when the rain begins and don't rush back even after play has started.

But when Boris Becker walked onto the court Thursday afternoon, there was not an empty seat. Tennis fans like to be present when the great ones announce they've arrived.

Becker is only 17. But make no mistake: He is here.

"He's the best player I've ever seen at 17," said Hank Pfister, Becker's first-round victim here. "I just can't imagine someone that age having as much power and poise as he does. I wish I had that much poise now."

Pfister is 30.

"I'm still a nobody," Becker said with a shy smile when asked about his rise to 20th in the world. "When I go out there with (John) McEnroe, (Jimmy) Connors and (Ivan) Lendl I feel like I don't belong . . . yet."

Since Bjorn Borg departed the scene in 1981, men's tennis essentially has been a three-man game: McEnroe, Lendl, Connors. Mats Wilander has won four Grand Slam events but never has made so much as a semifinal at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

That stagnation at the top has made the men's game almost as predictable as the women's, where Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd have won the last 14 Grand Slam events.

"I think it would be very good for the game if someone else really came together and became a major factor," McEnroe said. "We need new faces. I've thought for the last year that the two guys who can do that are Becker and (Sweden's Stefan) Edberg.

"Right now, Becker's really playing well. He's very dangerous because he goes for so many things. He's at that age where he doesn't think a lot about whether a shot is right or wrong. He just goes for broke, and when he's confident like he is now, he's very tough."

Said Pfister, "He has to be one of the four or five best players in the world, regardless of his ranking."

Becker recently won the Wimbledon warmup at Queens Club. At the French Open, he destroyed Vitas Gerulaitis in the opening round before losing to Wilander. Here, his first-round victory was impressive because Pfister is a prototype big-serving grass court player who has reached the round of 16 three times.

"In 10 years of pro tennis I've never elected to receive, but I did against Becker," Pfister said. "I wanted to try something to shake him up a little because he returns so well. It worked -- for a while."

Pfister won the first set but eventually Becker wore him out with his huge ground strokes, slashing returns and superb first serve.

"I was a little nervous at the start," Becker said. "To play on Centre Court my first match was an honor, but maybe if I had been on another court I would not have felt so much pressure."

Pressure. The old tennis buzz word, especially these days when players mature so young and get pushed on to the tour. Becker, like many women's players, has dropped out of high school to devote full time to tennis. In addition to his long-time coach, Gunther Bosch, he travels with Ion Tiriac, who has deserted Guillermo Vilas to hook on with Becker.

"He still has a lot of learning to do," Tiriac said. "The potential is there. It has to be brought out of him." Tiriac met Becker through Bosch, who grew up in the same tiny Romanian town as Tiriac and later played Davis Cup doubles with him. For several years, Bosch had told Tiriac he had a phenom. Only recently, after Vilas began to slide, did Tiriac look at Becker.

He liked what he saw. But, Tiriac said, "He still hasn't been toughened up enough. I am going to take him to the Alps and get him working there. People say he has good footwork. What I see is no footwork."

Tiriac already has worked with Becker on controlling his temper. It seems to be working. During both his matches here -- he routed Matt Anger in the second round, losing four games -- Becker has played almost stoically. On match point against Pfister, after serving what looked like an ace, Becker walked to the umpire's chair to discuss a fault that had been called. Then he calmly walked away and finished the match.

"Once, I would not have been able to do that," he said. "But I have learned that it doesn't do any good to argue. You have to keep playing and not think backwards."

When someone asked Becker when he had learned all this, Tiriac, standing nearby, answered, "Yesterday."

Tiriac almost always is standing near Becker. Clearly, he sees him as his next prize pupil, someone to be nurtured at an early age. Already, Becker is almost 6-2. He weighs 175 pounds and has broad shoulders that sit beneath a wide face that easily breaks into a smile. His rakish hair, which he cuts himself, is blondish-red, giving him a wild, teeny-bopper look.

But with a racket in his hands, Becker is very much a man.

"I think he's still a year or two away from being able to win the whole thing but he's got a great shot at the quarters or semis," Pfister said.

The youngest men's semifinalist here was McEnroe, who made it that far in 1977 at age 18. Most players think Becker is considerably farther along than McEnroe was then. "He has all the shots," Gerulaitis said.

Becker began drawing notice last November, shortly after turning 17, when he reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. After a struggling winter, he made the semifinals at the Italian Open before losing to eventual winner Yannick Noah.

"I am getting more confident now," he said. "I am trying to learn to serve like McEnroe, hit a forehand like Lendl and keep getting better. When I'm playing good, people say I'm a future champion. When I'm not playing good, people don't say anything about me."

One thing certain is that Becker will be pushed very hard. He knows people are watching him, waiting for him to make a big splash, perhaps before this year is over.

"I know now when I lose to somebody lower than me in the ranking it is a big thing, I'm not supposed to lose," he said. "I know as I go higher, there will be more pressure. But that's okay. I'm looking forward to it."

Becker split sets with seventh-seeded Joakim Nystrom today before rain stopped their match at 8 p.m. Nystrom, an accomplished and consistent player, often made the youngster look bad with his crackling ground strokes. But Becker, showing his competitiveness, hung in to win the second-set tie breaker, 7-5.

"Whatever happens now, it is all a learning experience," he said. "I do not go around thinking I will win Wimbledon this year. But maybe someday, if I'm lucky."

Maybe someday. But luck will have little to do with it. As Pfister put it, "He's this good: I don't wonder if he'll win Wimbledon, I wonder when."