LONDON, JUNE 20 -- A few hours after John McEnroe had been eliminated from the French Open last month, Boris Becker was sitting with a group of reporters talking about McEnroe. Becker was musing, rambling a bit as he spoke. McEnroe, he said, was much like Jimmy Connors; although some people didn't always approve of his behavior, there was no doubt he had been a boon to tennis.

Finally, Becker reached a conclusion. "They are the same," he said, "because they are part of tennis history. Maybe some people didn't like them, but always all people liked watching them play. They have helped make the game great."

A few feet away, underneath his ever-present swirl of cigarette smoke, stood Ion Tiriac, Becker's ever-present guru, advisor, manager and, of late, social director. Hearing Becker's discourse, Tiriac couldn't resist. "What about me?" he said. "Didn't I help make the game great?"

Becker didn't even look up. "I don't know," he answered. "I wasn't born when you were playing."

Touche'. Tiriac had been topped. By a 19-year-old.

The world already knows this is no ordinary 19-year-old. When Becker walks to Centre Court at 2 p.m. Monday to begin defense of his Wimbledon championship, he will not only be the two-time defending champion, but the No. 2 ranked tennis player in the world.

He is phenomenally talented and stunningly rich. His skill has been evident to tennis people since he was 15, to the world since he became the youngest man to win Wimbledon two years ago at age 17.

Now, though, it is rapidly becoming evident that Becker is not just exceptional with a racket in his hands. He is much more than a 6-foot-3, 190-pound tennis-playing machine. This is a living, breathing, laughing, crying, very bright young man.

"That is the problem," Tiriac grumbled. "Always, Boris is thinking. Always, he is asking questions."

While Becker's nature may give Tiriac headaches, while his romance with a 23-year-old woman may occasionally distract him from his job, it is becoming more apparent with each passing day that as tennis enters the Becker era, it is not just getting a champion. It is getting a major personality.

"Boris likes other people," said one player, who has seen champions come and go on the tour for 15 years. "That makes him different from {Ivan} Lendl. Ivan comes into the locker room, does what he has to and gets out. Boris is more like McEnroe was. He likes to hang out."

Becker doesn't get much chance to hang out because Tiriac keeps him on a short leash. It was that leash, wielded by Tiriac and his boyhood coach, Gunther Bosch, that was central to Becker's troubles in Australia last January. Becker was upset in the fourth round by Australian Wally Masur. His behavior was worse than his tennis, and when it was over, Bosch had either quit or been fired and was headed home to West Germany. People wondered if Becker was going to become another McEnroe. That isn't likely. He was just going through growing pains.

"I've never really had the chance to grow up in the game the way other players do," he said recently. "Other players, they work their way up, get a little attention, then a little more, then maybe a lot. When I won Wimbledon, that all changed. In one day, I had to grow up.

"Suddenly, I couldn't go out alone. I didn't have privacy. And, whenever I lost a match, I wasn't a 17-year-old losing, I was the Wimbledon champion losing. 'How come you lose?' they would ask me. My answer didn't matter. I wasn't supposed to lose."

When Becker talks about his lost childhood, it is almost matter-of-factly. Even at 19, Becker has learned there is no sense raging at what he can't control. He worries only about what he can control. And that still starts with his tennis.

When they talk about his game, most people tend to focus -- with good reason -- on the two Wimbledon titles. They mention that he is uncomfortable on clay and that his big serve-and-volley style is a grass court game.

But check the record. Becker was the youngest semifinalist in U.S. Open history last fall. That was on a hard court. He was a semifinalist two weeks ago at the French Open. That was on clay, a surface he is uncomfortable on. Twice, he has reached the Masters final. That was indoors. Only Lendl stands between Becker and No. 1. The odds are pretty good that before he turns 21 in November 1988, Becker will be No. 1. By then, he may have four Wimbledons.

He also may have an Olympic gold medal. Becker wants to play in the Olympics and recently shocked the English by saying the Olympics were more important than Wimbledon.

"Wimbledon is every year," he said. "The Olympics are every four and the whole world pays attention, not just the tennis world. The Olympics are more than just sports."

The four Wimbledons by then are, of course, a long shot. But Becker is halfway there. The more important point is this: the kid is not just a grass court phenomenon. He is on his way to becoming a great tennis player.

"How good he becomes all depends on him and only him," said Connors, who likes Becker despite being 0-4 against him. "He needs to find the consistency on other surfaces that he has now on grass. He needs to refine his game. There's nothing bad about his game, but when he can't overpower you, he is still vulnerable.

"Whether he'll go that next step is all up to him. You can't coach it. He has to want it."

Becker wants it. He worked diligently all spring to improve his clay court game. He learned to play with more patience, learned how to pick his spots to come in and not to get frustrated when the topspinners began moonballing him. He still is vulnerable on clay, as Mats Wilander proved emphatically in the French semifinals, but he's come a long way.

"People talk about his ground strokes being weak, well they're not," said Jimmy Arias after Becker blew him away in the French Open's fourth round. "They may not be as good as Lendl's yet, but they're damn good. As long as he doesn't try to hit the ball a million miles an hour, he's tough on clay. On grass, he's impossible; on clay, he's tough."Only Best Is Good Enough

Becker wants to be impossible on all surfaces. He seems to have that drive that separates top players from champions.

"I'm happy I got better, but not happy with the final result," he said after losing to Wilander in Paris. "I thought I had a chance to win here. I don't play tournaments to make the semifinals. I hope next year, I'll do better."

For the moment, Becker's concern is Wimbledon. Few people gave him much chance to repeat last year. Some said he had been lucky in 1985, pulling out a couple of tight matches, missing McEnroe and Connors because Kevin Curren beat them and having the element of surprise on his side.

Then, with no surprise factor, with all the pressure, Becker not only won again, he won in dominating fashion, beating Lendl in straight sets in the final. Now, he goes in as the solid favorite, top-seeded and full of confidence. What's more, even with two titles, Becker is hungry to win here again.

"To me, Wimbledon is tennis," he said. "When I was growing up, the only tennis we ever saw on TV was the Wimbledon final. That's why {Bjorn} Borg was my hero because I always saw him winning Wimbledon. I barely knew there was a French Open and I never even heard of the U.S. Open. To me, to win Wimbledon was to do everything in tennis. Now, I want to win the others, but Wimbledon will always be what matters most."

If Becker sounds remarkably articulate for a teen-ager speaking a second language, that's because he is. His English wasn't bad two years ago; now it is excellent. Part of that is Tiriac's insistence that he and Becker communicate in English. Tiriac speaks German, but is more comfortable with English. Beyond that, though, he recognizes the importance of speaking good English to Becker's future marketability.

Becker isn't doing badly right now. He has multi-million dollar contracts with Puma, Coca-Cola and a West German stereo components company, among others. With his mop of reddish-blond hair, his blue eyes and easy smile, Becker is the spokesman everyone is looking for.

Becker jokes in English, tells stories in English and is engagingly blunt in English.

Last fall, after Milan Srjeber appeared to give up against him in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Becker expressed bewilderment. "I looked up at the scoreboard when it was 4-love in the third set and I said to myself, 'What the hell is going on here, this is a U.S. Open quarterfinal.' He {Srjeber} is a strange guy."

More recently, when asked to pick a winner in the Wilander-Lendl French final, Becker answered flatly, "I pick Mats." Why? "Because he's mentally tougher. All the players know Lendl is not that tough mentally."

Lendl jumped all over that comment after beating Wilander, but that wasn't the point. Right or wrong, Becker was willing to speak his mind. He is no more afraid of Lendl than he is of anything else. He is supremely confident he will get what he wants from life, and right now that is simple: to be the best player in the world. He is driven enough that when Tiriac told him to leave his girlfriend home in Monte Carlo during the French Open, he complied.

That is not to imply that he follows Tiriac's orders to the letter. They argue about strategy, about practice time, even about business. "Once, all I did was play tennis," Becker said. "Now, so much of it is business. About this much" -- he snapped his fingers -- "is just pure tennis. It was more fun the other way. But I understand it has to be this way."

Not that there isn't fun in Becker's life. Shortly after losing to Wilander, Becker sat in the dwindling light watching Tiriac and his old doubles partner Ilie Nastase play an over-35 doubles match. It was 9-all in the third set and the light was fading fast when Tiriac turned around and said loudly, "Here, Boris, you take over for me and finish this off. Here's my racket."

Becker laughed. "No way," he answered, waving away the approaching Tiriac. "I want no part of one of your matches. I can still play."

Touche'. Tiriac walked away, beaten again by a 19-year-old. Not an average 19-year-old, though. An extraordinary one. With or without a tennis racket in his hands.