Finally, the load was too heavy even for Boris Becker to tote. He had shouldered John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and a good deal of the rest of men's tennis for more than a month; asking him also to carry the U.S. Open and CBS brought him to his knees.

And what wonderful knees they are. More football or baseball knees than tennis knees. Dotted with either blood or scabs, for Becker would dive on your driveway to save a harmless point in the first set.

What we have, sort of, is a West German teen-ager Americanizing tennis. Or at least bringing to tennis a daring athletic presence that already is causing a stampede of interest.

Here is a world-class ace, the Wimbledon champ no less, who doesn't need his mommy to lay out his little shorts and top each day and a bodyguard to shoo off admirers.

You look at Boom Boom, but dare not call him that to his face, and wonder: if he'd been raised in middle America, what might he be by now?

"A power-hitting outfielder," said Martina Navratilova.

The mind gets stirring . . .

" . . . Selecting first in the amateur draft, the Braves wasted little time in picking Boris Becker, the 6-foot-3 phenom scouts already are calling the next Mickey Mantle . . . "


"He'd be a terrific football player," said former Redskins coach Otto Graham, a courtside spectator at the U.S. Open. "You see those legs!"

What football position might the 190-pound Becker man? Graham winked.

"You tell me. I don't know anything about football."

Well, no American coach with a beer gut and whistle would allow Becker to work on topspin lobs for very long. Over here, kid, he would say, crooking his finger. Got a sport you'll be famous playing, and the perfect position: tight end.

Pressure from his peers -- and the community -- would almost assure the switch. Becker would not even have to drop out of high school to excel in team sport, as he did in his native country.

Anyway, the youngster with Cal Ripken's chest and Rich Milot's thighs has been the neatest thing to hit tennis in quite a while. Unseeded, unknown beyond Bud Collins and the eight other people terminally hooked on tennis, Becker scorched Wimbledon.

He proceeded to beat sanitized U.S. second- stringers in Davis Cup competition. And to make the final in the U.S. Clay Courts championship.

Nearly everyone wants to grab this comet by its shoestrings. McEnroe sees Becker as his next great rival, capable of inspiring him to even loftier levels.

The measure of an athlete, McEnroe says, is how many memorable rivalries he has engaged -- and won. He mentioned McEnroe-Borg, McEnroe-Connors, McEnroe-Lendl, McEnroe-Wilander "to an extent."

CBS thought it saw McEnroe-Becker in the quarterfinals tonight, and thought it sufficiently sellable to offer as prime-time competition to "Dynasty" and the poetry seminars on public television.

Normally, network TV risks sports in prime time only to the extent of the baseball playoffs and World Series, the Lakers, Celtics and NCAA championships in basketball, and the weekly NFL holding exhibitions.

All of a sudden, Becker seemed to be hoisting tennis to startling prestige: his first post-Wimbledon "confrontation" with McEnroe.

Heavy hype.

"The most eagerly anticipated event in the history of sports," one of the tabloid typists had told McEnroe.

McEnroe seemed both awed and offended that a child should be so precocious.

"That a 17-year-old can be the best player (in the world) would be pretty embarrassing," he said, adding: "What surprised me (in their only meeting to date, a McEnroe victory indoors in Milan this year) was how hard he hits.

"He's so well developed. I had baby fat at that age. Once I hit a chip backhand deep to his forehand. It's a defensive shot, a shot a guy can do something (but not much) with.

"He hit a winner, which takes talent. That woke me up. I thought: 'Is that guy kidding?' But he also was erratic."

McEnroe kept his part of the quarterfinal bargain; he wasn't as sure as others that Becker could keep his. For the first time, McEnroe reminded, Becker is facing two opponents on the court.

How's that?

The second one, McEnroe explained, is expectations. It's unseen, but grows larger the higher an individual rises in sport.

"I remember when I first won the Open," McEnroe said. "I was really high. I thought I would dominate everybody. Becker didn't know better after Wimbledon. When you have to do it week after week, it's difficult. The pressure will grow and grow. He'll understand better in five years."

Five hours was more like it.

For the script CBS and so many others were writing, nobody consulted a Swedish base line gunner named Joakim Nystrom. Nystrom nearly shot down Becker at Wimbledon; he scored a direct hit Monday.

In truth, some of Becker's wounds were self-inflicted. He made an astonishing 64 unforced errors; in trying to rally from a two-set deficit, he also showed the reckless grit that makes him so appealing.

"I think he was nervous early," Nystrom said. "He missed easy volleys."

The other foe, expectations, had become monstrous.

Maybe he'd also been anticipating McEnroe, Becker admitted, adding: "The first two sets I wasn't on the court."

Tonight, a movie called "License to Kill" will be on CBS. McEnroe-Nystrom, to the network, apparently is as commercial as MacNeil-Lehrer.

For Becker for a little while at least, the adversary called expectations has been deflated. He can go back to taking on one opponent one point at a time.