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Original Issue


Boris Becker's heroics led West Germany over the U.S. in a Davis Cup semifinal

As long as there is a Federal Republic of Germany, there will be the memory of Boris Becker late last Friday night in Munich's Olympiahalle. Becker's Davis Cup team was down a match to the U.S., and he was down two sets and 6-5 in the third to that doltish young American who hadn't even bothered to show up for the Wimbledon Becker worships and wins so often. What could Becker possibly do about Andre Agassi, a kid who was whipping lasers by him and was about to embarrass him in straight sets just two weeks after his most recent Wimbledon triumph? In chronological order, what Becker did was simply:

1) flip a perfect lob over Agassi's head in the 12th game of the third set to help break serve and deadlock the set at 6-6;

2) follow a 7-4 win in the ensuing tiebreaker with a 6-3 victory in the fourth set just before the clock struck midnight, when both the U.S. and West German sides elected, as was their right under Davis Cup rules, to stop play;

3) rally from a break behind again on Saturday to win the match 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 and to knot the best-of-five match tie at 1-1. The defeat of Agassi set up the critical Doppels in which Becker...

4) ...came back an hour later to lift his teammate, Eric Jelen, to unfathomable heights, namely the first Davis Cup beating ever administered to the formidable U.S. doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso.

To be sure, Carl-Uwe Steeb earned the decisive third point for West Germany on Sunday, when he surprised a downtrodden Agassi 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. The win provided sweet vindication for Steeb, whom Agassi had denigrated after losing to him in March. "I didn't even know the guy, whether he was lefthanded or righthanded," Agassi had said.

"Stupid!" Steeb replied after beating Agassi again on Sunday. "The best answer is to beat him. Everybody knows Agassi cannot play from behind." Steeb's win meant that Becker didn't have to suit up on Sunday to face his supposed nemesis, Brad Gilbert, a late addition to the U.S. team partly because of his 3-1 record (sport's most deceiving stat?) against Boom Boom.

West Germany's passion for tennis was manifest in Munich. The capacity crowds of 12,300 were raucous all three days, and Steffi Graf's father, Peter, had a better seat than President Richard von Weizsacker. Though Graf wasn't eligible, the West Germans, who are the defending Davis Cup champions, were the hottest team this side of the San Francisco Giants. To combat them, who you gonna call? Why, of course, a Bay Area guy. The 14th-ranked player in the world. The one and only "Beej" Gilbert.

Poor Beej. Hardly a ghostbuster, Gilbert was if anything an apparition-re-placer, filling in for the spirits of U.S. tennis past and future, John McEnroe and Michael Chang, respectively. Even Flach called Gilbert a "journeyman." Still, he was expected to beat the 23rd-ranked Steeb in the opening match.

"Look, Steeb is our gimme," said Agassi before play began. "He [Gilbert] was hired to get that point." Which is exactly what Gilbert did, winning 6-2, 2-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 despite committing 78 unforced errors and playing, as he so accurately put it, "like a wimp."

Tom Gorman, the U.S. captain, had found out only the weekend before that McEnroe's ailing left shoulder would prevent him from competing. Gorman's first choice for a replacement had been the 17-year-old Chang, the surprise winner of this year's French Open. But Chang had already planned a fishing trip with his father. Further, both Chang and his parents were displeased that Gorman had not asked him to be on the team for its April meeting with France.

"Michael's got things in perspective—he's not hounding the spotlight," said Agassi, 19, who lately had been, uh, pooching it a bit himself. But while Chang and Becker were winning Grand Slam events, Agassi had slammed himself into grand shape with the help of Pat Etcheberry, a former strength coach at Kentucky.

Weights, sprints, stretching, diet, haircut (just kidding). "I've trained harder in three weeks than in my entire life," said Agassi before facing Becker. "Now I can go the distance full guns." This from a kid who is 0-4 lifetime—whoops, 0-5—in five-setters as a pro.

Against Becker, however, the new Agassi showed more heart, guts and work ethic in defeat than he has in any victory. The result was one of the most marvelous big matches of any era. Tuck it right in there with Laver-Rosewall in Dallas, Borg-McEnroe at Wimbledon and Connors-Anybody, Anywhere.

It wasn't simply that Becker-Agassi in Munich roared through almost 4½ hours over two days. Or that Becker had home-crowd as well as home-carpet advantage, but still had to serve 28 aces and hit an amazing 102 winners to get out alive. Or that Agassi outslugged the compleat slugger for most of three anguishing tiebreaker sets. Or that Agassi outclutched Becker in the first two tiebreakers with brave, whacked-on-the-rise returns. Or that Agassi was within a point of falling behind 5-1 in the third set, but served for the match at 6-5.

The majesty of the battle continued in the fourth set, which began at 11:19 p.m. In it Becker actually served harder than he had all night. And when he drew even around midnight, everybody just knew Agassi would be finished the next day. But in Saturday morning's fifth set, with Becker serving at 3-1, 30-all, with Becker having won 10 of the previous 12 points, with Becker poised for the kill, the kid who couldn't go the distance jumped in his opponent's face one more time. Blistering his returns, Agassi broke, held and broke again to pull ahead 4-3.

Becker's final comeback was devised with craft as much as power. He charged behind backhands sliced low and away from Agassi's wheelhouse forehand. Serving to save the match at 4-5, Agassi's first serve deserted him, and Becker simply pounded second deliveries to end it. Afterward, Agassi leaped the net and gave as heartfelt an embrace as men's tennis has seen in years.

"If there's one person I look up to and respect, it's Boris," said Agassi, all grace in a wondrous moment.

The match's drama, intensity and level of play drained Flach and Seguso, who were waiting to face Becker and Jelen in doubles. "We went out feeling empty," Flach would say later. "For Andre to play so great and lose was deflating to the whole team."

An exhausted Becker was broken in the second game, and Flach and Seguso, who were 10-0 in Davis Cup competition, served out the first set. But soon enough Becker began to dominate play, and Jelen was obviously inspired. Jelen would save six break points in the first three sets and not lose his serve all afternoon en route to a 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6 upset for the West Germans, DAS DOPPEL-WUNDER! screamed the newspaper Bild.

Afterward someone asked Becker why he had once had trouble with Gilbert. "Because I was two years younger," he said with a glare.

As he gets set to assault the U.S. Open—and to take on Sweden in December in a rematch of last year's Davis Cup final—Becker, who's all of 21, seems to know exactly who he is. And the American challengers know, too. They were facing Becker without McEnroe. "Do you guys miss Mac?" they were asked.

"I miss my mother," Flach said.



Against Agassi, Becker came from behind to win a slugfest.



Jelen (right) was never broken as he and you-know-who pulled an upset in "Doppels."



Against Becker, Agassi exhibited new grit before falling in five sets over two days.