Here they were, Becker versus McEnroe in a Grand Slam tournament. At one end of the court at Melbourne's National Tennis Centre one of the players was fast losing his mind, pacing the baseline and shouting to himself. You say you're not a bit surprised?
Ah, but consider this: It was Boris Becker who—like the other 15,000 people in the stadium—was having all kinds of trouble at the Australian Open last Friday, adjusting to the names and numbers on the scoreboard, which showed that B. Becker had dropped the first set of his semifinal match to P. McEnroe by the score of 7-6.
What's more, Becker, the No. 2 player in the world, was now down 0-30 on his service at 2-all in the second set. While Becker raved, wild-eyed, the boyish, waiflike figure on the other side of the net, with his baggy shorts and Charlie Chaplin walk, stood impassive and unmoved. Patrick McEnroe, No. 114 in the world and the younger brother of you-know-who, was taking his breakthrough to the big time in stride.
Becker, by his own admission, was becoming unhinged. "Strange things always happen to me in Australia," he said after taking five hours and 11 minutes—the longest singles match in tournament history—to beat an Italian named Omar Camporese 7-6, 7-6, 0-6, 4-6, 14-12 in the third round. That was only the latest episode in a series of misadventures for Becker in the Australian Open. In 1985, when he was the reigning Wimbledon champion and the Australian Open was still played on the grass, Becker had lost to a lowly ranked Dutchman named Michiel Schapers. In 1987, against Wally Masur of Australia, Becker lost his mind, the match, $2,000 in fines for unsportsmanlike conduct and his coach, Günther Bosch, who parted company with young Boris after years of devotion. Now, in 1991, here he was, in the semifinals for the first time in six attempts, and he was being upstaged by a man whose main claim to fame was the family name.
Becker had the look of someone who had just seen pigs fly: Hadn't he led 3-0 in the first set, and hadn't he held set point at 5-4? Was that really Patrick McEnroe who had served an ace for a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker and who took the first set with a forehand crosscourt winner? It was, wasn't it?
Down in the locker room, Ivan Lendl was blinking, too. He had delayed going into the interview room after his five-set semifinal win over top-seeded Stefan Edberg to watch the tiebreaker on television. How did he feel about the prospect of meeting McEnroe in the final? "Surprised," Lendl said. "He has hit some good shots."
In Los Angeles, John McEnroe couldn't believe his ears. Telephoned at the end of the first set by Mary Carillo—a childhood friend who was doing commentary for ESPN on the match in Melbourne—John had to be convinced that what she was telling him was for real. Meanwhile, a 24-year-old New Yorker was undergoing an identity change in Australia. Somehow, after years of incubation, a righthander with a determination to disregard comparisons with his far more gifted lefthanded brother had lifted his game to unforeseen heights.
In the end, though, that would not be enough against Becker, who finally settled down and got his head together. With the help of 23 aces, he rolled to a 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 victory. Afterward Becker wouldn't speculate on how he would feel if he won the title, which would give him the No. 1 ranking on the computer for the first time in his career. Instead, he crossed his fingers against the possibility that anything else "strange" would befall him in Sunday's final against Lendl, the two-time defending champion.
"The important thing is that I don't lose my mind," he said. After Lendl reeled off a 6-1 rout in the first set and had a break point in the first game of the second, Becker, stiff from a muscle spasm in his back, looked to be in danger of doing just that. But he held, steadied himself, and in the 10th game his Melbourne nightmares began to give way to a dream ending. The Wimbledon Becker, all diving volleys and smoking forehands, took over. In the flash of a racket head, Lendl was broken to level the match at one set apiece. The act was repeated in the 10th game of the third set, which Becker won with an inspired down-the-line forehand passing shot on his sixth set point.
Another forehand winner on match point gave Becker a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win and launched him into a delirious orbit, along with the racket he tossed high into the stands. He jumped around, seemingly in a daze, and suddenly disappeared in the tunnel leading from the stadium. Several minutes later a tournament official found him running in a nearby park, letting off the tension and exhilaration. Still euphoric sometime later, Becker was lost for words at the presentation ceremony. "It's unbelievable," he said. "I can't say anything, I'm sorry."