An explosion of raw power

Nirmal Shekar first covered the Wimbledon Championships in London, in 1986. Here is the feature on the tournament where Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova retained their men's and women's singles titles respectively. This article was published in The Sportstar on July 19, 1986.

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Boris Becker brushed aside Ivan Lendl's challenge in the men's final.   -  Getty Images

The Hindu Photo Library

Martina Navratilova claimed her seventh women's singles title.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

NO piece of action, whatever the sport, materialises without some form of human visualisation. In a game of tennis, there may be much less time for the performer to think than in a relatively slow sport like golf. Yet consciously or subconsciously the thinking process is in motion when a tennis player plays a shot.

Or so you'd believe it you haven't watched an 18-year-old called Boris Becker. He simply defies the visualisation technique that lies at the very foundation of a sporting activity. As he seems to defy most other barriers of the possible and the impossible.

Watching him win his second Wimbledon title last fortnight, you couldn't help wondering if any other player in the history of the game had combined such raw power and an animal vitality with such extraordinary reflexes.

Jack Kramer was a powerful player and later on Lew Hoad hacked down opponents with enormous strength. Bjorn Borg's virtues were accuracy, patience and calmness under pressure while John McEnroe had extraordinary reflexes and a great touch with which he authored such marvellous artistic brush strokes.

Remarkable

But none of them may have blended sheer brute force and the enthusiasm of a hungry lion when in sight of a deer with the reflexes on a celluloid rambo in the Vietnam jungles. Boris Becker does just that. Little wonder then that the boy who won't be 19 until November 22 this year, added a second Wimbledon title dropping a mere two sets in seven matches.

And remarkably, nowhere does he appear more invincible than on the Wimbledon Centre Court. Since creating history as an unseeded 17-year-old last summer, Boris was quickly dragged down to earth like several others before him. He lost early in both the U.S. Open and later the Australian Open and his only important Grand Prix success came in Chicago earlier this year when he beat Lendl for the first time to win the title.

His run up to Wimbledon, too, hadn't been as impressive as last year when he won the Queens. This year he lost to Tim Mayotte in the quarter-finals at Queens and just when it appeared that the script was ready for the fall of the boy wonder on centre stage, he once again dominated it with such consummate authority, as if to say that the Centre Court was his own dear place and can accommodate no celebrity other than him.

Last year he was groping towards the promised land, this year, that piece of real estate was his own. And as the proud owner he simply axed down anyone who dared to question his ownership. But then, with the reigning world champion Ivan Lendl, still a long way from being a perfect grass court player, Jimmy Connors just about ready to leave the game and a big question mark still hanging over McEnroe's return to form, there is really no one around with the right kind of stature to question Boris Becker's supremacy on grass.

And that's a pity, and the reason why we haven't had a great final in Wimbledon since the retirement of Borg. After that John McEnroe was too far above the rest and the only five setter we have seen since that great Borg-McEnroe epic of 1980, was the Connors-McEnroe final of 1982, which again was a poor match because McEnroe was woefully off form.

Men like Tim Mayotte, Kevin Curren, Slobodan Zivojinovic and Henri Leconte can do their bit on their day at Wimbledon. But they are not anywhere near the class of a Borg, McEnroe or Becker. Good players, they are, but great champions they are not.

And the two men who did seem to have a touch of true championship class — Mats Wilander and the fellow Swede Stefan Edberg — are increasingly failing the big tests at Wimbledon and it is difficult to see a truly great Wimbledon rivalry, in the mould of the Borg-Connors and Borg-McEnroe editions.., developing at the All England Club in the near future.

Touch & power

From the future to the present then, the men's final, despite ending, in three sets, was still a richly patterned match. It wasn't a close match, yet it see-sawed a bit but the only thing is the power and brilliance of the young West German made sure that Lend! would be eventually tossed off the board he had all along been holding on to rather precariously.

Becker so effectively combined touch and power and came up with a performance that seemed to reflect a certain battle-hardened wisdom and not so much the number of birthdays he's left behind.

Ivan Lendl, one of the game's outstanding counter punchers, was mostly reduced to a baffled helplessness. He fired a good percentage of big serves and used the angles well for the passes, some of which were exquisite, especially the ones the world champion made on the run and off the forehand!

But Becker was charging the net like a frontline foot soldier and covering it by putting up a door of steel out there with his extraordinary reach and magical reflexes. And it was there that Lendl was beaten. He just could not pass the defending champion as much as he wanted to and the fast game of the match capsulised the very essence of the game.

Becker was serving for the match after an hour and 59 minutes at 6-5 in the third set. He started with a double fault. Lendl's forehand pass on the run made it- 0-30. And then Lendl again came up with a crisp forehand.

Almost hopelessly grassed, the young man found the ball trickling in from the net cord and belly jumped like a frog to get his racquet to it and tap it across the net for a winner.

That was a winner to beat all winners, and may be Boris Becker is one too.

Effective tool

Lendl had made a great start in the match by taking Becker to break point three times in the opening game and then actually breaking the champion in the fifth game. But Becker came out of that shaky phase with the same determination and style with which he had come out of so many tight corners last year to win his first title.

The first two sets were over in 75 minutes, with Becker's second serve, just as mighty as the first, which had produced 14 aces in the first two sets and would produce another in the third set.

But Lendl showed some inclination to stay in the match when he ran away to a 3-0 lead in the third set before Becker battled back yet again using the magnificent backhand return or serve as an effective tool under stress.

In fact it appears that the Becker backhand should be placed alongside the Lendl forehand and the John McEnroe backhand volley in the game's shop window. Sometimes he plays it with topspin just so it lands within limits and sometimes it is a flat shot but almost always it is hit with enormous power and is not meant to be put back on court from the other side.

The only time the lid fell off on the Centre Court that Sunday for Boris Becker was when he dropped the lid of the champion's trophy literally while in conversation with the Duchess of Kent after receiving the trophy from the oldest surviving men's champion. The French Musketeer Jena Borotra, who was the champion in 1928 and 1929.

Earlier, in the semi-final too, there weren't too many slips for Boris. He made one or two and the athletic Frenchman Henri Leconte won the third set tiebreak capitalising on those errors. The rest of the match was smooth sailing for the West German and Leconte himself put things in the right perspective after the match.

Irresistible

Asked if Boris Becker can be beaten at all, he replied: "The way he's playing? I don't think so." If Lendl had not been a world champion arid such an experienced grand slam player, nobody would have given him the chance he was given before the final.

But now that he has majestically defended his title, Becker would come back next year as the odds on favourite. He was a nobody in 1985 and a somebody without quite being the favourite this year but next year will be different and may yet represent the most critical phase of his early career, although it is difficult to see anyone emerging to question his credentials outside of a John McEnroe roaring back to peak form again.

Talking of credentials, the giant Yugoslav so wonderfully put a few question marks against Lendl's in the five set semi-final and it was only in a nervewracking fifth set that the champion proved his class to go through.

Zivojinovic has one of the biggest serves in the game, and with that goes a beautiful backhand return of serve and a fine temperament. He's now been in two grass court grand slam semi-finals and will be a threat to any top player on a fast court.

Martina all the way

On the women's side of the game, no threat ever seems big enough to deny Martina Navratilova. What she wanted this time was a seventh women's singles title and she got it without having to give away a single set.

In fact, in the last five years, when the great lady has won successive titles at Wimbledon, she's had to give away a mere two sets. How do you like that for statistics?

But to bring down her genius to mere statistics would be a shame. Martina is not too far away from the day when she'll rightfully earn the title of the greatest woman who's ever played the game. Only Helen Wills Moody has more Wimbledon singles titles than Martina (eight) and the world champion has assured us she'll be back in Wimbledon "even if I have won 10 titles."

Move over Helen, move over Lenglen, move over Chris and move over Everybody. Martina is the one and only.

Hana Mandlikova has played so brilliantly in the semi-finals to put out Chris Evert Lloyd and it appeared that the stage was set for a great final that would go the full distance.

And it did appear so even into the final match as Hana played so wonderfully, the strokes flowing from her racquet effortlessly. But Martina soon showed the girl the kind of genius that had taken her to the pedestal where she reigns from now. Once the order was established in the first set, the second turned out to be a sop and was over in a jiffy.

In the semi-finals, of course, Martina had taught a few lessons to one of the outstanding pupils in the game, Gabriela Sabatini.

The results (finals)

Men: Boris Becker beat Ivan Lendl 6-4, 6-3, 7-5.

Women: Martina Navratilova beat Hana Mandlikova 7-5, 6-3. Semi-finals: Hana beat Christ Lloyd 7-6, 7-5, Martina beat Gabriela Sabatini 6-2, 6-2.

Men's doubles: Joakim Nystrom and Mats Wilander (Sweden) beat Gary Donnelly and Peter Fleming (U.S.) 7-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Women's doubles: Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver (U.S.) beat Hana Mandlikova (Czech) and Wendy Turnbull (Aust) 6-1,6- 3.

Mixed doubles: Ken Flach and Kathy Jordan (U.S.) beat Heinz Guenthardt (Switzerland) and Martina Navratilova (U.S.) 6-3, 7-6.

From the Sportstar archive, dated July 19, 1986

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