HARTFORD, CONN., JULY 26 -- In the end, it became the match of their lives.

For Tim Mayotte, it would have been vindication, a victory to be remembered forever because of what it meant to his country and to him. For Boris Becker, it would have been a defeat more daunting than any he has suffered in his young life for the same reasons.

Mayotte is a very good tennis player. But Becker is a special tennis player, one whose gifts go far beyond strength, agility and quickness. He has more than that, an intangible that other champions -- such as John McEnroe -- can see right away.

Special players win special matches. Today, Becker fought off his nerves and a raging, white-hot Mayotte and saved West Germany from Davis Cup relegation with a spine-tingling 6-2, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-2 victory. Becker's win gave West Germany a 3-2 victory over the United States in this relegation match, keeping West Germany in the 16-team main draw for next year. The United States drops to zone play, where it must earn its way back into the main draw for 1989. Today, it was eliminated for 1988.

For Becker, carrying the hopes of West Germany is nothing new, but with most in the crowd of 12,887 in Hartford Civic Center trying to will his defeat tonight, every point was torturous.

"It was the most difficult match of my life," he said. "The circumstances made it hard, the crowd cheering every time I missed a serve made it hard and him playing for two sets like I have never seen him play in his life, it was all very tough. I just had to stay calm -- stay calm, be patient and not go mad. If I go mad, I lose the match."

For Mayotte, this was sweet agony. He miraculously came from two sets down to force a fifth set. He was playing in an emotional daze, carried by the fans, by his teammates, by the circumstances. And yet, deep inside as the fifth set began, he knew that the jagged edge was self-created, the result of his loss Friday to Eric Jelen.

But that was then, this was now. John McEnroe had beaten Jelen, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1, in the opening singles today. That made the score 2-2, the West Germans having won Friday's two singles, the Americans Saturday's doubles and McEnroe's virtuoso singles today.

As soon as he had punched one last crosscourt forehand past Jelen, McEnroe grabbed a huge American flag and began waving it, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

What the United States wanted to avoid was having the match come down to the final singles between Mayotte and Becker. The way to do that was to win the doubles and beat Jelen twice. McEnroe and the Ken Flach-Robert Seguso doubles team kept their end of the bargain.

But Mayotte didn't in Friday's opener, losing in five sets to Jelen. That set up a Mayotte-Becker match to decide the whole thing.

For two sets, it looked easy for Becker. His serve was unhittable and he was reading Mayotte's serve the way Richard Burton read Shakespeare.

"For 2 1/2 sets, I played like perfect tennis," Becker said. "I was doing everything I wanted to. If I win one more point, I probably win in three sets. But he made a great shot and the match became very hard."

Mayotte's shot came with Becker up, 3-2, in the third set. Becker had gotten a little loose, letting Mayotte break him to lead, 2-1, in the third. Becker took a deep breath and broke back at love, finishing the game with a textbook topspin lob. He held easily for 3-2 and, in the next game, drilled a backhand return to get to break point.

Mayotte served and, bravely, came in. Becker whistled another backhand that looked like a winner. But Mayotte twisted his 6-foot-3 frame in the air and somehow punched a backhand volley that left Becker flat-footed.

Mayotte held for 3-all. Slowly, he was beginning to play to the crowd the way McEnroe did all weekend. Mayotte is not the extrovert McEnroe is. He is very intense and emotional, but keeps it inside except for occasional outburst of frustration. Today, needing help from any possible source, he transformed.

It started slowly. First, he tapped his racket a couple of times to encourage applause. Then, he shook his fist. Finally, with the rest of the team -- led by McEnroe -- urging everyone on, Mayotte began windmilling his arms a la McEnroe.

"I was feeding off the emotion of the crowd," Mayotte said. "Their support got me going and I picked up my tennis. I started moving the target around on his serve and I think it began to affect him. He finally started missing."

Mayotte had practiced Saturday with Paul Annacone and prepared for Becker by having Annacone serve from two feet inside the base line to simulate the power of Becker's serve. Even so, he couldn't touch Becker for two sets. But in the third, he moved way back, standing a good eight to 10 feet behind the base line. And he began getting the ball in play.

"His serve got a little weaker just when mine started to get bigger," Mayotte said. "Once I got into the match, I really thought I had a chance."

At 5-all, after Becker had saved three break points, he made a rare mistake, pushing a backhand wide. Break point four. This time, Mayotte looped a backhand return. Becker thought it was going long and didn't play the ball. It dropped in and, suddenly, Mayotte was serving for the set. He blew through the game, blasting three straight aces and it was off to the locker room, Becker's margin sliced in half.

"I really thought at that point Tim had a great chance," said U.S. captain Tom Gorman. "He had finally reached the point where he was playing the way he plays in tournaments. He was relaxed, playing tennis. And Boris wasn't the Boris he had been against John on Friday and in the first two sets."

The crowd was truly wild now and Mayotte was torrid. At 2-all in the fourth, he broke, somehow returning a huge Becker serve from about the fourth row of seats and then watching as a shocked Becker netted a backhand. The adrenalin surging, Mayotte served out the set, coming up with an ace on Becker's one break-back chance.

They had played three hours and they were even again. One set would decide the whole weekend. Last spring, in an identical situation in Spain, Becker wilted against Sergio Casal. That was why the Germans were here this weekend. Becker remembered.

"I was thinking that I just had to find a way to win," he said. "It has not been that good a year for me, losing that match in Spain and Wimbledon and I thought I just had to find a way to win, somehow.

"I knew for me to win he had to crack up and the way for that to happen was for him to have a big chance and for me to find a way to get by it. Then maybe he would lose a little, maybe crack up and I would win."

They went on serve to 2-2, Becker not missing a first serve. But in the fifth game, he wavered. Up, 40-30, he netted a backhand. At deuce, he leaped for a backhand volley -- and netted it.

Break point. Becker missed a twisted first serve. He served, came in and Mayotte slammed a return. Becker volleyed, but the ball sat up a little. Mayotte wound up and fired a backhand crosscourt. A sure winner. But no. Becker lunged, somehow stabbed the ball and nailed a backhand volley that Mayotte couldn't get.

Mayotte had one more break point, but Becker crushed a serve and easily put away Mayotte's desperation return. Two more serves and he was out of the game, and, as it turned out, out of trouble.

"After that," Becker said, "I felt sure I would win the match."

All the adrenalin seemed to go out of Mayotte then. The chance had been there, and gone. Becker drilled a forehand return, then another one for 0-30. Mayotte came up with an ace, but netted a backhand. At 15-40, Becker chipped a backhand return and Mayotte's half-volley hit the net tape.

Becker was jumping, screaming, heard clearly in the suddenly quiet building. It was over soon after, with another break and another backhand return. Overjoyed, he hurled his racket high into the stands and jumped into the arms of his delirious -- and relieved -- teammates.

His racket, he learned later, hit Pauline Morreen, an elderly spectator from Hancock, N.H., in the head. She was shaken, but uncut. Becker came into the stands later, apologized and invited Morreen and her husband to be his guests at the U.S. Open in September.

Becker, still just a 19-year-old, showed his emotion, mimicking McEnroe by grabbing a huge West German flag and circling the court waving it.

India, Australia Gain

From News Services

Defending champion Australia advanced to the Davis Cup semifinals for the 13th straight year. The 4-1 victory over Mexico sends the Australians against India Oct. 2-4 in Sydney.

Australians Wally Masur and Peter Doohan took 15 minutes to complete a 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6, 13-11 doubles victory over Leonardo Lavalle and Jorge Lozano. They had been halted by darkness Saturday with the match tied, 10-10. That clinched the series for Australia.

In the reverse singles, Australian Pat Cash beat Lozano, 6-3, 6-4, and Lavalle earned Mexico's only point by defeating Masur, 7-5, 6-4.

In New Delhi, India completed a 4-0 sweep of Israel.

Ramesh Krishnan beat Amos Mansdorf, 10-8, 6-0. Mansdorf battled Krishnan for 70 minutes in the first set, but faded in the second, overcome by the heat and humidity. The final singles match was called off in the second set because of rain.

Sweden won two singles in Frejus, France, to complete a 4-1 victory over France and advance to play Spain, a 3-2 winner over Paraguay.