Becker making a name for himself
Benjamin Becker is responsible for ending Andre Agassi's career. Now, he's climbing the pro ranks and ready to make noise, Bonnie DeSimone writes.
Benjamin Becker guaranteed himself a niche in tennis posterity by ending Andre Agassi's magnificent career in the third round of the 2006 U.S. Open. If Becker's recent results are any indication, there's evidence he will carve out a bigger space in fan consciousness before long.
The 25-year-old German and former NCAA champion from Baylor University ducked out of the limelight after Andy Roddick ousted him in the Open round of 16, but his first full season as a professional didn't end there.
Becker took on then-No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic in the second round of his next tournament and held a set point against the Croatian before succumbing. He reached the semifinals in Tokyo by beating then-No. 16 Jarkko Nieminen of Finland in the quarters -- Becker's first-ever win over a top-20 player -- then joined the legions who have lost to the peerless Roger Federer this year. In Becker's last event of this eventful season, he advanced to the final in a lower-level Challenger tournament in the Ukraine, where he tumbled to Russian No. 22 Dmitry Tursunov.
That modicum of success enabled Becker to leapfrog to a career-high ranking of 58th in the world, up from No. 420 at the end of last year. In late December, he'll depart for Australia and a couple of tune-up tournaments for what will be his first automatic entry in the main draw of a Grand Slam.
"I exceeded my expectations for sure,'' he said on the phone from his Coral Springs, Fla., home. "I had a goal to be in the top 100 by the end of the year. I improved technically, and my serve and my forehand got more consistent. The mental part of my game really improved.
"You can really tell that [the top players] know what to do at important moments. They know what they can rely on. I need time to figure that out. But you get more out of those losses than if you play badly and win.''
Becker didn't ask for all the drama surrounding the Agassi match. Yet now that he has some distance from it, he said the experience changed him for the better.
"I don't think that it gets more emotional, a bigger scene, than that,'' Becker said. "I faced it and I dealt with it well. It gave me a little more confidence on the court to be able to play through that atmosphere of 24,000 people cheering against you, facing an idol.''
His coach, Tarik Benhabiles, agreed but reserved any specific conclusions.
"What happened out there takes a little time to digest,'' said the Miami-based Benhabiles, a one-time mentor to Roddick. "That match planted a seed in him. He came alive in the tennis world. We haven't seen all the rewards of it yet. Maybe in three or six months.
"Now it's about establishing his reputation and beating a few guys in the top 10, maybe winning a tournament next year. He needs to be around those guys every day.''
Becker -- "Benni" to his friends -- charmed reporters before and after his milestone win over Agassi with a modest, plainspoken manner interspersed with humorous asides.
He joked about the small crowds that attended his college matches and the pressure of being the second-most famous B. Becker in tennis annals. He and German icon Boris Becker are not related, although Benjamin said that if he gets through a tournament without fielding at least one question about it, "I think something's wrong.'' There was a predictable spate of stories about the coincidence at this year's Wimbledon.
So Becker's recent election as Sportsman of the Year in his native Saarland region in southwest Germany isn't going to turn his head either. "An honor, for sure,'' Becker said of the award, which has previously gone to race car drivers and badminton players. Becker did admit he is getting recognized on the street more than before. "It's the smallest state in Germany,'' he added.
With that winning personality and potential, it would be easy to assume Becker arrived at Baylor hungry for success. That wasn't the case, though, according to men's head coach Matt Knoll, who said Becker was shy, listless and ambivalent about playing tennis despite his natural gifts.
"In a group setting, he gave you the impression that he'd rather stand in a corner and hope nobody noticed him,'' said Knoll, director of tennis operations at Baylor. "He didn't really know why he was getting up in the morning. He didn't seem to have much of a purpose.
"His entire freshman year, he never practiced with the varsity guys. Only the reserves. His effort level and his concentration was so poor that he couldn't give our top guys a good enough practice, so we put him with our No. 8 guy, who was excited and diving for balls all over the place.''
Becker eventually came around, in Knoll's opinion, because he liked his teammates and didn't want to let them down in competition. He also tamed his youthful penchant for smashing rackets in anger and became skilled at controlling his emotions on court.
He led Baylor to the NCAA team championship in 2004, his junior year, capturing the singles title in the process, and might have progressed in the pro ranks even faster if he hadn't broken his wrist the summer before his senior year, necessitating a long rehab.
"He was everything you want -- a great student, a 3.4 [grade point average] in business, a great player, a great teammate, a great guy,'' said Knoll, who was one of the few people in Arthur Ashe Stadium openly pulling for Becker when he played Agassi.
Now Becker is also a walking billboard promoting the virtues of going to college for those not ready to be teenaged pros.
"I wish I could have learned faster, but I needed that time in college, especially the last two years,'' said Becker, who is still a few credits shy of his four-year degree. "I'm still young. If I take care of my body, I'll be playing for a long time. I hope I can give some motivation to guys who are 23, 24. I don't want them to think they're too old.''
Becker said he's looking forward to a somewhat less grueling schedule next year. He began the season playing lower-level professional tournaments and survived qualifying to make his first ATP event at a grass-court tournament in Halle, Germany, in June, where he lost to Tomas Berdych. Becker had to trudge through qualifying again before winning his first ATP-level main draw match at Wimbledon against Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela, then extended Spain's 30th-ranked Fernando Verdasco to five sets in their second-round match.
Becker finished 9-8 in ATP-level events. Four of his eight losses were to players in the top 15.
Benhabiles said Becker came out of Baylor well prepared physically and easy to work with because of his maturity.
"He's very flexible, and he's a good listener,'' the coach said. "He knows he doesn't have time to waste. The key now is for him to feel he belongs.''
Bonnie DeSimone is frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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