One year ago, Boris Becker was carried off the court at Wimbledon on a stretcher. Today, Becker again left with his feet off the ground.
This time, he was carrying the championship trophy and his escorts were the Duke and Duchess of Kent. If his feet didn't touch the ground it was because the effusive Centre Court crowd lifted him just as he had lifted it through a remarkable final and a miraculous fortnight.
Today, Becker made history. By beating Kevin Curren, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, he became, at 17, the first unseeded player in the history of Wimbledon to win a singles title. He became the youngest male to win the singles title by almost two years. In fact, he became the first of 10 unseeded male finalists to win a set.
"This is my first Wimbledon (win)," Becker said, smiling after the match. "I hope it won't be my last."
If the last two weeks are any indication, it won't be. Becker was a set down in two matches and won second-set tie breakers. He was down, 2-1, in sets to Tim Mayotte and won a fourth-set tie breaker and the fifth set.
Today, after losing the second-set tie breaker, he was down a service break in the third set and seemingly reeling. Instead, he broke Curren right back, won a tie breaker, broke again in the first game of the fourth set and served out the match.
"When I broke him back after losing my serve I thought I would win the match," Becker said. "I had had my chances and hadn't gotten them. I decided it was time to just go for it."
Perhaps that was the difference. At 27, Curren had enough sense of history to know he might not have this chance again. Becker simply saw it as another match he wanted to win.
"I probably should have had the advantage," Curren said. "I had been in the semifinals before. I had been on Centre Court more, I had more experience. But maybe he's just too young to know about that stuff and he just went out and played."
When Becker got into trouble, he said he had one thought: "Go for it." In the key game of the crucial third set, serving at 30-40, Curren had a backhand volley. He played it cautiously and Becker hit a screaming backhand past him for the break.
"On break point," Curren said later, "I didn't want to go for the volley." Didn't go for it.
Therein is the difference. That explains why Becker was holding the trophy, beaming at his parents who had flown in, while Curren stood to the side, rackets slung over his shoulder, waiting to leave.
This should be said of Curren: On a day when his most important weapon, the first serve, all but abandoned him, he hung in. In the third set, Curren saved eight set points. It took Becker three match points to put him away.
"I'm a human being, not a machine," said Curren, who had appeared almost superhuman in ousting John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. "Today, I started out just too eager, I guess. I played a horrific game to get broken at the start and then didn't get broken again until the third set. If I hadn't lost that first service game, things might have been different."
From the moment the two walked on court this cool, sunny day, it was apparent that the grandness of the occasion and of this place was hardly a concern to Becker. He began by holding his serve easily.
Curren had a game point on his serve, but then played three inept points. He netted an easy forehand volley. At deuce, Becker's return popped off the frame of his racket and he walked away, figuring the point was lost. But the ball just floated over the net. Curren wound up and, amazingly, missed the overhead.
Break point. A buzz went through the crowd. Curren had not lost serve since the third round -- 44 games in a row. Today, on the first break point of the match, he double-faulted.
That break was all Becker needed for the first set. "When I got the early break I think Kevin was nervous," Becker said. "I was serving well and when I broke that was the first set."
At the start of the second, Curren began working his way into the match. His ground strokes, choppy and unsure in the first, began to flow.
Curren still couldn't find the groove on his serve. But he showed some grit. At 3-all, he survived 0-40 and applauded himself after punching a volley cross court to get to deuce. He served out the game.
They advanced on serve to 6-all, then Curren played a superb tie breaker. Down, 3-0, Curren crunched two serves for 3-2. Becker responded with a serve of his own for 4-2. As they changed sides, Becker, as he had done against Anders Jarryd in the semifinals, appeared to try almost to walk through Curren.
Curren said later he didn't notice. But he did play inspired tennis, winning the last five points of the tie breaker. He began by running down a backhand for a winner and ended with two wonderful backhands, the first on a service return, the second a pass that went down the line, brushing the corner for the set.
Becker looked nonplussed. He held serve in the first game of the third set and immediately had Curren at break point. But Curren came up with one of his 19 aces to save that game.
"I was starting to feel as if I had figured something out about him," Curren said. "I was jamming him and giving him trouble."
"I was missing chances," Becker said. "I had to change that."
Both players were having trouble with the court. Chewed up by two weeks of tennis and rain, it was more brown than green. "The middle was like the French Open (slow clay) and the outside was like Wimbledon," Becker said.
There were strange bounces. The court seemed to be bothering Becker more as the match settled into a duel of huge serves. Curren only got 46 percent of his first serves in to Becker's 65 percent, but he did come up with courageous second serves when he got into trouble.
And, in the seventh game of the third set, he finally got a service break. It came on a shot almost identical to the shot Curren had hit to win the second, a screeching backhand that sent Becker rolling in the dirt.
Now, Curren seemed in charge.
"I did the same thing I had been doing the couple of games before," Curren said. "I took a little off my serve and jammed him. He just hit every return."
Curren's lead lasted two minutes. Becker got to 0-40 with a ripped backhand return, then got the break back when Curren hit the cautious volley he will see in his dreams and then watched another backhand whiz past him.
Becker quickly held and had set point at 5-4. He even went into his delaying routine, walking off the line when Curren was ready to serve, something he had done several times during the match. Curren, angry, served a winner and then pointed at Becker as if to say, "Take that."
"It wasn't that big a deal, but it's a little unnecessary gamesmanship," Curren said. "He doesn't make a habit of that kind of thing, though."
Curren saved two more set points with Becker leading, 6-5.
But he couldn't survive another tie breaker. Becker raced to a 6-0 lead and, although Curren saved four set points, Becker won the set with a forehand return that Curren could only scoop into the net.
"I played a good tie breaker," Becker said. "After I broke him back for 4-4, I felt confident. I just told myself to keep going for shots."
He didn't let up, breaking Curren to begin the fourth set. By this time, Becker was pumping and juking on big points, blowing on his racket hand incessantly. Curren looked languid by comparison, as if the middle two sets had drained him.
He had one more chance to stay in the match. It came in the second game when Becker left a weak volley sitting up for Curren to put away. That was break point. Becker took a deep breath and came up with the 19th of his 21 aces. Curren never again had break point.
But he never quit. Trailing, 3-5, he double-faulted himself to match point. But he saved it with a sharp, crisp backhand volley.
And so it was, with the sun beginning to fade, that Becker walked out to serve for the match at 5-4. Quickly, Becker, serving powerfully, reached 40-15. The cries and shouts reverberated around the old stadium. Match point. Becker sighed, aimed -- and double-faulted.
Now, there were murmurs. They had played 3 hours 18 minutes.
As he had done all tournament, Becker made the big shot when he most had to. He screeched one last serve to Curren's backhand. The ball ticked off the frame, bouncing away into history.
Becker exulted, Curren congratulated, the crowd celebrated the genius of one, the grit of the other.
Becker, filthy again from his dives and lunges, beamed during the awards ceremony. "I just go on the court to play tennis," he said a few moments later. "I go on the court and fight to win."
One year ago, in the third round of this tournament, he tore tendons in his ankles against Bill Scanlon and was carried out on a stretcher. Today, he held the trophy high as he left, a young man carried by history.