Boris Becker raised his fist in the air today, and all of a sudden he was 17 again. The fans were screaming, the flashbulbs were twinkling and most of all there was his name, attached to a winning score high above Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Then he blinked, and he realized he was 31 and that this was only the second round, not the final he won three times. But for that one moment, everything had been magnificent. And it was enough.
"It was a perfect moment for me," Becker said. "It was almost like I won the tournament. Unfortunately, it was only the second round, but it was a great feeling to be back on Centre Court, and it brought the best out of me."
Becker looked comfortable from the instant he stepped on to the familiar green grass, thrashing his way by 21-year-old German Nicolas Kiefer in a 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 match that was neither predictable nor friendly. As the 15th seed, Kiefer had technically been the favorite, but the match marked Becker's return to Centre Court after semi-retiring two years ago, and he appeared determined to make it a happy homecoming.
"I can't really say this is my place anymore. I used to own it, but Pete Sampras has taken over the keys," Becker said. "So we have new ownership of the court, but I still obviously feel very much at home on it and very comfortable there."
Joining Becker in the third round will be French Open champion Andre Agassi, who played a determined 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over feisty Argentine Guillermo Canas, and defending Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna, who handled Sylvia Plischke, 6-3, 6-1.
No. 7 seed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario was not as successful, falling to American Lisa Raymond, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1. Australian qualifier Jelena Dokic, who upset top-seeded Martina Hingis on Tuesday, won her second-round match against Katarina Studenikova, 6-0, 4-6, 8-6. No. 3 seed Lindsay Davenport also was victorious, speeding through with a 6-2, 6-2 singles win over Karina Habsudova and a 6-0, 6-0 victory in her doubles match with partner Corina Morariu.
Darkness almost overtook No. 2 seed Patrick Rafter's match against his doubles partner, Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, but after a brief stumble in the third set Rafter was able to finish things off with a 6-2, 7-6 (7-3), 6-7 (9-7), 6-2 victory.
"We know each other's games pretty well," Rafter said. "We respect each other a lot and we don't get in each other's faces on the court. It's real nice because we're good mates, and we do understand that we could lose to each other on any given day. He's not mad when he comes off if he lost because he knows I could lose to him tomorrow."
Things were not as friendly on Centre Court, where the match between Becker and Kiefer served as the climax of a feud that has been brewing over the last few months. The pair have had several public squabbles at German Davis Cup and World Team Cup events, and earlier this week Kiefer accused Becker of purposely ignoring him in the locker room. Their match was given advance billing as a heated conflict between the roaring impatience of youth and the crafty wisdom of age, but instead of an epic battle spectators were treated to a rather quick Becker coronation that concluded with the players exchanging a quick, wordless handshake.
The match was a marked switch from Becker's first-round victory over Britain's Miles Maclagan, a five-set dogfight in which Becker come back from two sets down and three Maclagan match points. That win, which took place on an outer court, left Becker elated but exhausted the next morning.
"Oh my God, I felt my age, my tennis player age," Becker said. "Tennis is very much a mental game, and after not playing at Wimbledon, obviously the first round was much more than just a tennis match. Once I got that over with, I was much more at ease with myself."
Becker first burst onto these grounds as a fire-headed 16-year-old, dominating his opponents with a monster serve and booming, powerful groundstrokes. He won his first title by the age of 17 and his third by 21, and by 1995 he had been in seven Wimbledon finals. But in 1996 he was upset in the third round, and in 1997 he lost to Sampras in the quarterfinals.
He immediately declared that to be his final Grand Slam appearance, and although he has played scattered tournaments since, he has been listed in the ATP Tour register as "semi-retired." He didn't miss the competition until about six months ago, when he found out his wife was pregnant with his second child. He decided he wanted to take one last run at Wimbledon before retiring completely to be with his family, and he knew that this time it would be different.
No one expected him to win.
Instead he could just drink everything in, collecting one or two more special moments before finally leaving Centre Court for good.
"Fortunately and unfortunately, I started to win here right away, so anything less than that felt like a loss, even though I reached the final seven times," Becker said. "I had to walk away from the tournament as a winner, otherwise it was a disappointment for everybody, and maybe even for myself. So the ladder was very high and the pressure was enormous.
"Nowadays I'm more relaxed. I don't have anything to prove anymore; I'm just very, very fortunate. When I made the decision [to come back] six months ago, I wasn't sure physically if I'd be able to handle all the injuries and the best-of-five sets. So to pull off two victories is very, very pleasing. I'm really surprised. I didn't expect it at all."
When: Through July 4.
Where: All England club, Wimbledon.
Defending champions: Pete Sampras, Jana Novotna.
Top seeds: Sampras, Martina Hingis.
Today's TV: 9 a.m., HBO.
Yesterday's results: Men -- Patrick Rafter (2), Australia, def. Jonas Bjorkman, Sweden, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3), 6-7 (9-7), 6-2; Andre Agassi (4), United States, def. Guillermo Canas, Argentina, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3; Richard Krajicek (5), Netherlands, def. Todd Woodbridge, Australia, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4; Tim Henman (6), Britain, def. Chris Woodruff, United States, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4); Todd Martin (8), United States, def. Jiri Novak, Czech Republic, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4; Boris Becker, Germany, def. Nicolas Kiefer (15), Germany, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. Women -- Lindsay Davenport (3), United States, def. Karina Habsudova, Slovakia, 6-2, 6-2; Jana Novotna (5), Czech Republic, def. Sylvia Plischke, Austria, 6-3, 6-1; Lisa Raymond, United States, def. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (7), Spain, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1; Mary Pierce (9), France, def. Rita Grande, Italy, 6-1, 6-3; Jelena Dokic, Australia, def. Katarina Studenikova, Slovakia, 6-0, 4-6, 8-6.
Today's featured matches: Men -- Pete Sampras (1), United States, vs. Danny Sapsford, Britain; Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3), Russia, vs. Cedric Pioline, France; Sebastien Grosjean, France, vs. Tim Henman (6), Britain; Greg Rusedski (9), Britain, vs. Magnus Norman, Sweden. Women -- Corina Morariu, United States, vs. Steffi Graf (2), Germany; Mirjana Lucic, Croatia, vs. Monica Seles (4), United States; Venus Williams (6), United States, vs. Sarah Pitkowski, France; Ines Gorrochategui, Argentina, vs. Anna Kournikova (17), Russia.