Germany's other B. Becker
Who is Benjamin Becker? Cynthia Faulkner writes about the German qualifier who will try to end his boyhood idol's career.
(Editor's note: this story was written prior to Benjamin Becker's third-round win over Andre Agassi.)
NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi hopped. He bounced. He joked. Andre Agassi had fun. Full of energy after a five-set, second-round win, Agassi wasn't quite ready to talk about five more matches. Instead, he bantered with John McEnroe about the next opponent, one B. Becker.
While he is very familiar with Boris Becker, Agassi has never played this B. Becker.
They were supposed to meet in the third round Saturday, but rain has postponed their match until 11 a.m. on Sunday in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Just like that other Becker, Benjamin Becker is from Germany, but there's no relationship between the two. "If I don't get that question when I play a tournament," Benjamin Becker said, "I think something's wrong."
This relatively unknown Becker reportedly caused a stir at Wimbledon in 1999 at the junior championships when fans arrived at his court hoping to see Boris Becker in his final tennis appearance. Benjamin Becker hasn't even spoken to Boris Becker. Then again, he's only seen Agassi once in person.
"It's funny," Becker said. "I grew up idolizing Andre and Boris both. I remember the matches they had when Andre still had the long hair, the Donnay racket, orange racket, the colorful clothes. I grew up watching Boris Becker from Germany and Andre because he was so charismatic."
Agassi's charisma made him a star even before he won his first major title at Wimbledon in 1992. After a career consisting of eight major title victories, having played in 61 Slams and 21 U.S. Opens, Agassi once again seems to be enjoying tennis like a kid: enthusiastic, easily distracted and with nothing to lose but his pride.
He's appreciating every moment of this final tournament, he says, yet each match is taking a harsh physical toll. The bouncy Tigger on court immediately after his 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 victory against Marcos Baghdatis was all adrenaline and warm muscles. Agassi limped into the press conference afterward and later reporters spotted him lying on the sidewalk with an aching back. He endured a cortisone shot just to win Thursday night's match. On Friday, he was unable to practice and required a different kind of anti-inflammatory shot be given to him at his hotel, according to The Associated Press. The pain, not his desire to play, is why he's retiring at age 36.
Based on experience, Becker shouldn't have much of a chance against his idol. He's never played on center court. The closest he has come to it was watching the Agassi-Baghdatis match. Showing how much this 25-year-old is sitting outside the inner circle, he couldn't even get a ticket.
"I was trying to watch it in the stadium, but there were no seats," Becker said in a press conference Friday, wearing a bright orange U.S. Open sweatshirt that sported not one sponsor logo. "I had to stand in the alley and then they kicked us out, so I went to the hotel and watched it at the hotel."
At first, Becker watched to absorb the rowdy atmosphere and scout out Agassi as a potential opponent. Becker hoped Agassi would win, so they could play. But soon, Becker became just another fan.
"After a while, I was just amazed by the game because, I mean, it was an unbelievable match," Becker said.
Becker made an unbelievable entrance on the tennis scene this past year. He was ranked 1,400th at this time last year, qualifying for the futures. After the Open, he's going to be ranked in the top 100.
"It's a nice story because the kid started from nowhere," Tarik Benhabiles said. Benhabiles, who coached a young Andy Roddick, works with Becker along with fellow Frenchman Jean Luc Fontanot.
No one in Becker's family played tennis they were soccer fans. He came upon tennis by accident, watching Boris Becker and picking up a racket he found in the family garage around age 7. A neighbor invited him to a tennis club when he was about 8, and when he was about 10 years old, he began playing in the regional tennis center. He went to Baylor University in 2000 after graduating from Gymnasium Stefansberg high school in Merzig, Germany, because "I was recruited only by Baylor University."
He'd always wanted to go to the United States, but Waco, Texas, wasn't exactly what he'd imagined. "I was a little surprised," he said. "I was expecting all the skyscrapers. I mean, yeah, I had to get used to it."
Benhabiles said Becker's college experience has made him more balanced than many other players out there.
"Most difficult is he's going to have to be able to erase in his mind that he's playing Andre," Benhabiles said. "I don't want him to be impressed by the resume of Andre."
Not to mention the momentous occasion of playing Agassi in his last tournament.
"Anytime Andre is on the court, he's playing like it is his last game," Benhabiles said.
It could very well be. Wet, cold conditions like those forecasted for Saturday generally are bad for chronic muscle and back problems. A complete rain delay, however, might buy Agassi time to heal.
Benhabiles doesn't want his player to get the win because of injury. "It's not a victory," he said.
Andre Agassi has never lost to B. Becker at the U.S. Open. In five meetings at major tournaments, Agassi only lost once to Boris Becker, in the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1995.
Still, Benhabiles, who is a big believer in destiny, thinks his player has a shot.
"He really has the potential to become a great player," Benhabiles said. "He has the ability to focus very well and manage his emotions on the court."
According to Benhabiles, Becker has a very high percentage on returns. Quite interesting considering Agassi's dominance as a returner in the game.
Becker said he hopes to beat Agassi at his own game with an aggressive approach.
"Trying to serve big, trying to return aggressively so that, you know, I can, you know, put pressure on him a little bit ," Becker said. "Make him move instead he makes me move what he likes to do, and he does best."
If Agassi can move well enough to play, he'll continue to soak in what he calls a "whole sort of jacuzzi of emotions."
At least for one more match. Or maybe, just maybe, five.
Cynthia Faulkner is a senior editor for ESPN.com.
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