Men's final attracts opposites Becker, Stich to clash in all-German match


WIMBLEDON, England -- Don't be misled by the high-fives in the Centre Court tunnel or all the sweet talk in the interview room. When Boris Becker and Michael Stich square off with rackets at 20 paces today on a scarred grass court, they will not try to turn Wimbledon into a friendly afternoon at the Oktoberfest.

History's first all-German Wimbledon men's final (channels 2, 4, 9 a.m.) is a grudge match, pure and simple. This is Ali-Frazier come to a tennis court. Becker may be the undisputed heavyweight champion of German tennis, but Stich is the contender with a roundhouse forehand and a knockout serve.

They bring to this final clashes in style and temperament. They're right-handers, but that is where all similarities end. Becker dropped out of high school after the 10th grade and won the first of his three Wimbledon titles at 17. At 23, he is a wordly, international star, given to brooding about subjects ranging from the corrupting influence of prize money in tennis to the fate of the planet.

Stich, 22, has been a professional since 1988, rising dramatically from No. 795 to No. 7. He is brusque and self-assured, a secondary school graduate with an interest in computers. Asked by a journalist, "Who is Michael Stich?" he looked at the man, shook his head and said, "Can we get another question, please?"

Stich (pronounced Shteetch) challenged Becker's Davis Cup status earlier this year. Stich was upset when Becker was two days late for training and also questioned why Niki Pilic, then Becker's coach, also was allowed to coach the German team.

The players have submerged their differences in this Wimbledon fortnight. After Stich won three tie-breakers and ran defending champion Stefan Edberg out of the semifinals, Becker greeted him in a runway, gave him a high-five and said it would be wonderful to have an all-German final. Becker then defeated American David Wheaton in three sets.

"One thing is true -- that Michael and myself have become quite close over the last 10 days, for obvious reasons," Becker said.

But Becker said he does not expect Stich to stand in awe during the final.

"He's a different kind of guy," Becker said. "He's a confident man. I don't think so, that I was his big idol when he was young."

Stich said he respects Becker's accomplishments. But that doesn't mean he will stand aside and let Becker grab every major title.

"Boris won Wimbledon in 1985, and I didn't even think about being a professional tennis player," Stich said. "It's not that I'm in the shadow of Boris. Everybody can try to play his best tennis and try to come up. When you can do that and when you can improve a lot, Boris is not in your way. He is not in the corner saying, 'You can't play good tennis.' It's just up to yourself to do that, and I did that."

This is Stich's first Grand Slam final, but it may not be his last. He was a semifinalist at last month's French Open in Paris, and his serve-and-volley game can be adapted to any surface. The former soccer midfielder has grown into a fierce and accomplished tennis star.

"I've improved every year," he said. "I've worked really hard for that, and I don't think you have to start when you're 16 if you want to become a top player. Look at a lot of these players. They reach their level or their limit when they are 25 or 26."

Stich said he is learning how to win big matches after suffering a string of defeats against Edberg, Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. In his only match against Becker, he was blown out, 6-1, 6-2, at the 1990 Paris Indoors.

"I was always very close in these matches," Stich said. "I thought to myself, 'Why are you always losing these matches?' I tried to concentrate on that."

Both players have hit potholes on their paths to the final. Becker has spent much of the tournament talking to his racket and complaining about the schedule, dropping three sets in six matches. Stich has had a tougher time, dropping five games. He had to come back to defeat Alexander Volkov, who was serving for a fourth-round match at 5-4, 30-all in the fifth set.

But, now, he faces Becker, the king of Wimbledon. Six times in the past seven years, Becker has played in the final. He is accustomed to the crowd, the pressure and the noise. The champion has little advice to give the challenger.

"I hope he's nervous," Becker said, "because I'm going to be nervous."

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