Benni Becker: The Anti-Phenomenon

This is part of a regular series following Benjamin Becker’s progress on the ATP tour. This is not a Benjamin Becker fan site, we’ll trash anyone given the opportunity (constructively, of course). The idea is to follow the progress of one player on the tour as an ongoing serial biography.

Donald Young was sixteen years old last year when he got a wild card into the first round at Indian Wells, Miami and the U.S. Open. This year he’s been named a hitting partner for the upcoming U.S. Davis Cup match. It’s not that easy being a tennis phenomenon. Young has yet to win a match on the main tour and he feels alienated from the junior tennis circuit. Last year at Wimbledon he sounded like a lonely young man:

I’m not accepted in the juniors, because the others are all upset that I have deals and an agent, and the pros, they’re all upset because you’re 15 years younger and it feels like your taking their living. So there’s really nowhere really for me right now.

Young got another wild card into Miami this week but this time it was for the qualifying tournament. He lost in the first round.

You could call Benni Becker an anti-phenomenon. He played a few futures tournaments in the ATP minor leagues when he was nineteen but he certainly didn’t have an entourage. He didn’t start college until he was twenty and when he arrived at Baylor University, his coach Matt Knoll said he was “shy, listless and ambivalent about playing tennis.” Becker went back home to Germany after his first year at Baylor, put his racket in the closet and left it there until he returned to school.

His attitude changed after his team suffered a disappointing loss in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year. He dedicated himself to playing tennis so he could help his team win the NCAA title. Here’s another way that Becker is an anti-phenomenon: he didn’t find motivation in individual goals in what is normally an individual sport, instead he ended up playing tennis in the one place in the world where tennis is a team sport – college tennis in the U.S.

The next year, Baylor won the NCAA team title and Becker won the NCAA individual title. Yet he still came back for his senior year. Maybe he needed more time to make that transition from playing a team sport to playing an individual sport. In an email interview I asked him how he made the transition:

I never had personal tennis goals until now so I find motivation, but playing for the NCAA showed me how to set goals and work towards [them]. Just the feeling of winning it and giving something back to the university and fighting and practicing with friends made it a special goal.

That’s an incomplete answer – where does he find motivation? – so I’ll have to go into it more when I speak to him next time, but it’s an unusual statement considering that most tennis players play for themselves from an early age.

I couldn’t speak to Becker in person because he’d already lost his first round match at Indian Wells by the time I arrived. He also lost his first round match at Miami this week. Being emotionally mature doesn’t make you immune to the fluctuations that every career goes through, the road to the top is seldom a straight line and Becker’s sharp rise, in particular, has been tiring. Every tennis media outlet in the world wanted to speak to him after he sent Andre Agassi into retirement at last year’s U.S. Open and he recently played Davis Cup for the first time and signed a clothing contract with Boris Becker’s line which no doubt increased the media inquiries in Germany.

Speaking of that Agassi match, if you remember, Becker started to cramp in the fourth and final set and he cruised through Agassi’s service games until they got to 5-5, then he broke Agassi and served out for the match. I asked him if that was an intentional strategy:

I did not really wait for one game but tried to save my energy a little in the fourth set and just go for winners on his service games. At 5:5 15:0 I kind of felt a second wind and gathered myself physically and mentally again and played a great game to break.

So it wasn’t entirely intentional but it was adequate and I doubt that Donald Young would be equipped at this point in his career to take that victory in front of 23,000 of Agassi’s biggest fans. For sure, the younger Benni Becker could never have pulled it off.