The ascension of Boris Becker continues.
Tonight, Mats Wilander, the No. 3-ranked tennis player in the world, fired salvo after salvo at Becker. He ran down Becker's huge forehands, riddled him with passing shots and played at an extraordinarily high emotional level the entire evening.
And yet, it was not enough. Becker still found the few holes left by Wilander and still made the shots when he had to, finally squeezing past the Swede, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, before 10,971 in the Grand Prix Masters at Madison Square Garden.
Becker's victory makes a meeting with top-seeded Ivan Lendl in Sunday's final almost inevitable. His semifinal opponent will be the winner of Friday's Anders Jarryd-Brad Gilbert match. Neither of them is likely to upset Becker.
Lendl, who plays Tim Mayotte in a Friday quarterfinal, would then face Andres Gomez, who has made the most of his last-second invitation to replace flu-ridden Jimmy Connors. Gomez easily dispatched Johan Kriek, 6-3, 6-2, tonight but is unlikely to continue his skein against Lendl.
"If I play Lendl, that would be nice," Becker said. "We have both been playing good tennis the last few months. I know he is very confident, but I almost beat him on his favorite surface in London (in October). We will see."
Tonight, the Garden crowd saw a remarkable match. Although Becker is ranked No. 5 in the world, he is probably's the world's No. 2 player right now. John McEnroe (No. 2) is sliding, Jimmy Connors (No. 4) is, too, and Wilander has now lost to Becker four straight times.
It was the three earlier losses that seemed to be on Wilander's mind tonight. In spite of his cool exterior, Wilander is a keen competitor who doesn't like losing to anyone four times, much less to an 18-year-old, no matter how good he is.
Becker-Wilander is a classic power vs. finesse matchup.
"I think I play well against Mats because he stays back so much that if I do not have my touch in the beginning, I will get it because he stays back and hits and hits," Becker said. "I think once I find my touch I play pretty good and I am hard to beat."
Becker found his touch midway through the first set, blasting his forehand even harder than he hit it last summer while winning Wimbledon. Wilander fought him off and fought him off, but Becker is never denied easily. Even when a light bulb fell from the Garden ceiling and landed with a splat near his feet with Wilander serving at 4-5, Becker wasn't deterred.
He lost that point to go down, 40-30, but hit a gorgeous backhand past Wilander, who had made a rare foray to the net to get to deuce. Then, Becker forced two Wilander errors, jumping on second serves and coming in. The first time, Wilander hit a high forehand off which Becker slapped a backhand volley. On the second, Wilander, trying to play too fine, netted a backhand.
Becker had the first set. But Wilander didn't back away. He hung in, broke Becker in the fifth game with a floating forehand just beyond Becker's reach and served out the set, winning the last game at love.
"I thought I was playing well, in fact I did play well," Wilander said. "It was just that in the third set, he served better than I did. That was the difference."
Becker, as he often does when it matters most, seemed to reach back for an extra notch on his serve in the final set. Only once did Wilander have a chance to break. That came at 3-3 when Wilander ran down an excellent forehand and nailed a forehand of his own crosscourt past the lunging Becker.
That put Becker at 15-30. He promptly served three rockets to escape danger easily. "That showed how strong he is," Wilander said. "On the big points, he serves his best."
Wilander was none too shabby himself in the last set when the tennis reached a level not often seen in this tournament, especially in the early rounds. He survived a 0-30 hole at 2-3, with four superb points, the last a backhand volley punched with his racket just before it hit him in the stomach.
But, serving at 3-4, Wilander finally found Becker a little too strong. Again, he came back from 0-30 and led, 40-30. But Becker, showing touch too, landed a forehand lob on the line to get to deuce. Then he came in behind a forehand and Wilander lobbed wide. Finally, Becker slammed a backhand approach, came in and hit an angled volley that Wilander just got to but pushed wide.
Becker, who had been warned earlier in the game for getting coaching signals from Gunther Bosch -- who works with him along with Ion Tiriac -- turned toward the two men as if to say, "I've got him."
He did. After Lendl came up with one more brilliant backhand return, Becker served out the match, ending it with his 11th ace, the perfect punctuation to a match in which Becker's power finally wore down Wilander's determination.
"I thought Mats played much better than our last two matches," Becker said. "This is the best I have seen him play me since Paris, when he gave me a very good tennis lesson."
Becker smiled. "Of course, I have learned a lot since then."