WIMBLEDON, England -- He showed he still owned the place even while shoved out on to Court 1 playing against a Frenchman in a baseball cap. His knees creaked, his serves flattened out by the hour, and his nerves jangled for all the tennis world to see.
But Boris Becker was bringing Wimbledon back to life yesterday as the setting sun cast long shadows over the scarred grass. He was reminding everyone that there was more to this tournament than some guy we'll never hear of again named Jeff Tarango quitting, and some Brit hitting a ball girl, and Murphy Jensen going AWOL.
And here he was in the fifth set of a quarterfinal match, Becker jTC bringing drama back to tennis, diving and slashing and finally putting away Cedric Pioline, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (6-8), 6-7 (10-12), 9-7.
It took 4 hours and 14 minutes, but the crowd didn't want Becker to leave. He threw his racket to the fans and tossed whatever else he had in his bag up to the stands, and walked off, the cheers still pouring down.
"It's what the game is all about," Becker said. "It's what the championship is all about."
They will end up deciding the Wimbledon championship this weekend, and Becker, a three-time champ, is still in the show.
Tomorrow, it will be No. 3 Becker against No. 1 Andre Agassi, who flattened Jacco Eltingh, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.
The other semifinal will pit No. 2 Pete Sampras, the two-time reigning champion, against No. 4 Goran Ivanisevic. And the way Sampras is playing, making Japan's Shuzo Matsuoka into some kind of giant killer before winning, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, there may not be a three-peat.
Ivanisevic looks like the player to beat now. Everyone may be grumbling about how boring it is to watch a stoic player serve aces, but until they change the rules or the rackets, there are going to be matches like Ivanisevic's quarterfinal serving derby over No. 6 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 7-5, 7-6 (13-11), 6-3.
Never before have both the top four men's and women's seeds made it to Wimbledon's semifinals. But it took a lot for Becker to get there. Somehow, he turned what should have been a 90-minute win into an epic. He let Pioline up off the deck, and the Frenchman, who reached the U.S. Open final in 1993, tugged at his cap and started returning serves like he was in a trance.
Becker was jittery, tossing away two tiebreakers. He started talking to his racket and talking to the ground. And there he was, down an early break in the final set, looking like a goner, until he slapped his thigh and cursed and snatched the break back in the eighth game.
"You have to have the desire," he said. "I had the desire to say, 'I'm not going to give up.' The guy has to play another great 15-20 minutes to beat me."
And now the crowd and Becker were back in the match, and suddenly, all was right with Wimbledon. They don't do fifth-set tiebreakers here and the match ticked on past four hours, and here was Becker, mixing it up, a volley one moment, hanging on the baseline the next, piling up three match points but giving them away.
"We hit like 20,000 shots," Pioline said.
And when the shots finally counted at the end, it was Pioline who cracked, volleying long to set up a fourth match point, and finally, letting one last topspin backhand fly long.
Pioline's head sank down. And Becker punched the air in relief.
Becker showed he still has the desire for the game and he still has the ambition to win the only tennis title he ever wanted. It was a decade ago when he showed up at Wimbledon an unknown and left as the teen-age king nicknamed "Boom-Boom."
27, now, with a wife and son, trying to live a normal life while earning his living on a year-round circuit that never stops.
His strawberry-blond hair is cut short. A beard covers his face. He has overcome the period in his career when he cried with frustration, when he let a one-dimensional player like Michael Stich beat him at Wimbledon in 1991.
"There was a time in my early 20s when I wasn't hungry anymore," he said. "But that has gone past."
A year and a half ago, he read the stories about his impending tennis demise. "He's over the top. He's not hungry. You can't combine the two [tennis and family]," Becker said, recounting the tales.
But the tabloid writers who make the star's lives miserable at Wimbledon have left Becker alone. And he likes it that way.
"It's very hard to create a new story about me," he said. "Everything is said and done. I'm still playing. I'm still winning . . . sometimes."
Now, he has to get by Agassi to get to the Breakfast at Wimbledon. And Becker is a long shot at best, losing eight straight times to the baseliner with the floppy shorts.
Becker's legs are nearly shot, and he lumbers to the net like an overloaded truck. But to get his title back, he'll have to charge hard and fast.
"It is foolish for me to stay at the baseline," Becker said.
And then, he was gone, off to see his family, off to prepare for one last stand at Wimbledon.
Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, def. Jacco Eltingh, Netherlands, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla., def. Shuzo Matsuoka, Japan, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
Goran Ivanisevic (4), Croatia, def. Yevgeny Kafelnikov (6), Russia, 7-5, 7-6 (13-11), 6-3. Boris Becker (3), Germany, def. Cedric Pioline, France, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (6-8), 6-7 (10-12), 9-7.
Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Natasha Zvereva (1), Belarus, def. Conchita Martinez, Spain, and Patricia Tarabini (11), Argentina, 6-2, 6-1.
Jana Novotna, Czech Republic, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, def. Nicole Arendt, Gainesville, Fla., and Pam Shriver (8), Baltimore, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5.
Gabriela Sabatini, Argentina, and Brenda Schultz-McCarthy (9), Netherlands, def. Amy Frazier, Rochester Hills, Mich., and Kimberly Po, Rolling Hills, Calif., 6-1, 7-6 (7-2).
Meredith McGrath, Midland, Mich., and Larisa Neiland (5), Latvia, def. Lori McNeil, Houston, and Helena Sukova, Czech Republic, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Andrew Florent and Catherine Barclay, Australia, def. Kelly Jones, San Diego, and Katrina Adams, Missouri City, Texas, 6-3, 7-5.
Grant Connell, Canada, and Lindsay Davenport (2), Murrieta, Calif., def. Mark Petchey and Clare Wood, Britain, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3).
Cyril Suk, Czech Republic, and Gigi Fernandez (4), Aspen, Colo., def. Tom Nijssen, Netherlands, and Claudia Porwik, Germany, 6-4, 6-0.