Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Becker recalls ending Agassi's career 10 years ago

Clouds obscure the Golden Gate Bridge near Tiburon. Photo by Paul Bauman
   TIBURON, Calif. -- Before Benjamin Becker arrived at the U.S. Open last month, it never occurred to him that the tournament marked the 10th anniversary of his third-round victory that sent Andre Agassi into retirement.
   Becker promptly found out, however.    
   "You get reminded all over the place," the top-seeded Becker, 35, recalled after beating 19-year-old American Tommy Paul, last year's French Open boys champion, 7-6 (1), 6-2 on Tuesday in the first round of the $100,000 Wells Fargo Bank Tiburon Challenger at the Tiburon Peninsula Club. "When I walked in to get my credential on Thursday before the U.S. Open, they showed the match on TV, so everybody was talking about it. Everybody reminded me about it."
   Becker also stumbled upon an article about the anniversary on ESPN's website.
   "I was looking for NBA news," admitted Becker, the 2004 NCAA champion from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a big fan of Dallas Mavericks star and fellow German Dirk Nowitzki, "and I saw an article about the 10-year anniversary, so I was reading about it. That's the first time, actually, I realized it was the 10-year anniversary.
   "It's not something I thought about or planned or felt like it was something special for me. It was just another U.S. Open. I wanted to do well. I didn't."
   Becker, who's not related to German legend Boris Becker, shouldn't be too hard on himself. He drew sixth seed and 2014 runner-up Kei Nishikori in the opening round at Flushing Meadows and lost in four sets. Nishikori, 26, went on to reach the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka.
Top-seeded Benjamin Becker is shown during his victory
over 19-year-old Tommy Paul in the first round of the
$100,000 Tiburon Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Becker may have forgotten about the anniversary, but journalists at the U.S. Open didn't. Not that he was inundated by interview requests.
   "I did one with a German journalist," Becker said. "Actually, after my match, an American journalist came and just asked me about the Agassi match, not even about the match I just played. I did a few, but nothing compared to what I did 10 years ago."
   Whereas Paul had lost seven of his previous eight matches, Becker reached the final of last week's $50,000 Columbus (Ohio) Challenger. Becker lost to Danish wild card Mikael Torpegaard, an Ohio State junior playing on his home court.
   Despite being almost twice Paul's age, Becker outrallied him on a beautiful day.
   "That's not really the way I want to play, but coming from indoors, trying to get used to the conditions is very tough," said Becker, who won the first four games of the match but lost the next five against the 235th-ranked Paul. "I just arrived yesterday. I didn't want to try to overpower him and go for too many shots. I knew he hasn't won many matches -- I did my research. I just wanted to make him play and get my rhythm. I didn't want to give him free points.
   "I did pretty well at the beginning, then he kind of found his rhythm and came back in the first set. The tiebreak was obviously important. I kept up my game, and he started missing more. The game plan today was to play more consistent, but I don't want to do it over a longer term because I know I can't do it at my age."     
   With the first round of the Tiburon Challenger complete, seven of the eight singles seeds have advanced. Salvatore Caruso, a 23-year-old qualifier from Italy, upset No. 7 Ernesto Escobedo, a 20-year-old resident of West Covina in the Los Angeles area, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 on Tuesday.
   Another qualifier, 18-year-old Michael Mmoh of Bradenton, Fla., survived three match points in a victory over Tennys Sandgren of Gallatin, Tenn. Mmoh led 4-6, 7-6 (5), 2-0 when the 25-year-old Sandgren, a semifinalist in Columbus, retired with a lower back injury.
   The athletic Mmoh, who won the USTA boys 18 singles title last month to earn an automatic wild card in the U.S. Open, and Sandgren, who has a punishing whipping forehand similar to Jack Sock's, engaged in numerous breathtaking baseline rallies. Mmoh will face another 18-year-old American, No. 6 seed Stefan Kozlov, today for a quarterfinal berth.   
   No. 3 seed and defending champion Tim Smyczek of Tampa, Fla., defeated qualifier Brydan Klein of Great Britain 6-4, 2-1, retired (back).
   Klein ousted No. 2 seed and countryman Kyle Edmund in the first round last year before falling to 18-year-old Frenchman Quentin Halys in the second round. Halys went on to reach the semifinals.
   Also advancing Tuesday were Bay Area products Dennis Novikov, 22, and Mackenzie McDonald, 21.
   The fifth-seeded Novikov, who grew up in San Jose and lives in Milpitas, dismissed wild card Robbie Bellamy, a USC senior from Pacific Palisades in the Los Angeles area, 6-3, 6-2.
   McDonald, a wild card who grew up in Piedmont, beat Canada's Peter Polansky, the 2013 champion, 6-3, 6-4. McDonald, only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 145 pounds (66 kilograms), reached the semifinals in singles and doubles (with Deiton Baughman) last year.
   Agassi, wracked by back pain, lost to Becker 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 on the afternoon of Sept. 3, 2006, in front of almost 24,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium and a national television audience. Afterward, Agassi gave an emotional farewell speech on the court. Becker lost in the next round to Andy Roddick; the fourth-round appearance remains Becker's best showing in a Grand Slam tournament.
Paul, last year's French Open boys champion, lost for the eighth
time in his last nine matches. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Now Becker, the only top-100 player in the Tiburon Challenger at No. 91, is approaching retirement. Only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 158 pounds (72 kilograms), he has amassed more than $4.3 million in prize money, attained a career high of No. 35 in singles and won one ATP World Tour title (on grass at Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, in 2014). But he'll always be known as the guy who ended the charismatic Agassi's legendary career.        
   "I'm used to it now," Becker said. "Obviously, it felt uncomfortable at first because I was a newcomer on tour. It was my first U.S. Open and second Grand Slam. But I feel like I'm still going at it 10 years later. I still played the U.S. Open main draw. ...
   "(Ending Agassi's career) was a great experience, but it's not like I look back now and be like, 'Oh my god, it was great, the best thing of my life.' I might do it after my career, but now I'm so focused on what's coming up that I don't really look back too much."
   Asked how often he has been reminded of the Agassi match in the past 10 years, Becker said: "A lot, obviously. I don't blame people for asking me about it because it obviously was (on) a very big stage.
   "There are always two questions when I come to the tennis courts: 'Are you related to Boris Becker?' and 'How did it feel to retire Agassi?' I'm used to it. I'm fine with it. I would do the same if somebody else did it."
   Agassi was Benjamin Becker's second-biggest idol behind Boris Becker. In fact, watching Boris win Grand Slam titles on television inspired Benjamin to take up tennis.
   "Nobody in my family plays tennis," Becker noted. "I started playing soccer like every German boy. Then I started playing tennis and got into it. I went to, like, scouting for little kids and then the regional federation took me under its wing. That's how it started."
   Boris has become a mentor to Benjamin. But the first time they met, during Benjamin's Davis Cup debut in 2007, he was overcome by nerves.
   "I didn't breathe for a minute, I think," Benjamin Becker cracked. "I was already nervous playing Davis Cup. He didn't come to watch my match just to kind of protect me, which I think was very respectful. He came to the doubles match, which I didn't play.
   "But everybody, when he enters the room, it's like the king enters. Me growing up, I woke up at night to watch him (play overseas on television)."
   Now Benjamin Becker has two young sons. He said he will decide in December if he'll play next year.
   "As of now, I think I have one more year in me. Then I'll call it quits," Becker suggested.
   Becker plans to obtain his bachelor's degree in finance from Baylor. He has one semester left.
   "Then I have no idea," Becker conceded. "I'm not sure if I'll stay in tennis. It's an option, but I would like to try other things. We'll see what door will open for me. Hopefully I'll find something that I'm as passionate about as tennis."
   Here are the Tiburon singles and doubles draws and today's schedule.

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