[This is the first installment of a weekly column 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.]
What is a serial biography? Think of it like this. Every week Sports Illustrated arrives at your door and within its pages you can read about the latest escapades of Manny Ramirez, mercurial outfielder for the Red Sox. Or you can read about football player Pacman Jones’ role in a triple shooting at a strip club in Las Vegas during the NBA All-Star game. Or you can read about Peyton Manning finally winning a Super Bowl after years of criticism for coming up short in big games.
I’ve been reading about Peyton Manning since he was a college quarterback at the University of Tennessee. Even then he couldn’t win the big game, he never beat Florida. I’ve followed him from frustration to a Super Bowl victory in real time weekly episodes for over ten years and that is what I call a serial biography.
Benjamin (Benni) Becker is still at the beginning of his professional tennis career so let’s see how he got where he is. I first met Becker at a challenger tournament in Valencia in April 2006. I’d read an article in the New York Times about older foreign students winning NCAA tennis championships and I went to the tournament to see if I could find any college players willing to comment on the controversy.
I ended up sitting next to Becker’s host family and they mentioned that he’d played at Baylor University and had problems with the NCAA. I didn’t realize it at the time but his name had been in that New York Times article because he’d won the 2004 NCAA title. He lost the final at Valencia and I didn’t think I’d see him on the ATP tour anytime soon. He had a big serve but he was only 5ft10in so I didn’t think he could consistently pound his first serve and keep it in the court, in fact, he lost the final with poor serving.
The next time I noticed him he’d qualified into a main tour event in Halle, Germany, his home country. In his very next tournament he qualified into Wimbledon and got to the second round. At Wimbledon, his coach Tarik Benhabiles leaned over to Becker’s manager and told him that Becker could be a top twenty player. I wasn’t so sure and nobody was paying much attention to him, but that was all about to change.
He qualified into the U.S. Open and made it all the way to the third round where he met America’s tennis hero, Andre Agassi, who was playing his last tournament before retiring. It was Becker’s sixth match of the tournament and fatigue set in by the beginning of the fourth set. He was smart enough to conserve energy by cruising through Agassi’s service games until Agassi served at 5-5. Becker then put all of his energy into breaking Agassi and served out the set to take the match and send Agassi into retirement.
He lost in the next round to Andy Roddick but he’d gone from a ranking of 198 at Valencia to number 75 in five short months. No more qualifying tournaments for Mr. Becker. Since that time he’s reached three semifinals and is now ranked number 40.
This year for the first time he played Davis Cup for Germany. During the Davis Cup tie he reached another milestone in his young career: he signed a clothing deal. In a recent interview with Bonnie DeSimone, Benni said that it’ll be harder to get over having the same last name as Boris Becker than it will be to get over being known as the last man to beat Agassi. So you have to wonder why he would wear Boris Becker’s clothing line. If Benni goes on to win a few ATP titles and actually get to the top 20, the Agassi trivia question will fade away, but he’ll never come within miles of matching Boris’s career so why cover himself in the man’s clothing? Where’s the upside in that?
Everyone arrives in the world with a personality and we all develop ways of managing the personalities we’ve been dealt. We may be humble despite harboring delusions of grandeur, that way no one can taunt us if we fail to reach our delusional goals.
Some of us take the opposite approach. Look at young ATP player Novak Djokovic. He defaulted against Rafael Nadal in a French Open match then sat down in a media session and informed us that he’d been in control of the match despite having lost the first two sets. He also took five injury timeouts while winning a U.S. Open match against Gael Monfils. His liberal interpretation of injury timeout rules led Roger Federer, no less, to call him a “joke when it comes down to his injuries.” Djokovic makes a point of upsetting a high ranked opponent then forcing himself to rise to the challenge next time they meet. He raises the stakes then dares himself to meet the call.
It works for Djokovic. He’s number 14 in the world and rising. I might be overstating my case here but Benni does not seem like the kind of guy who would make life difficult for himself. In the Bonnie De Simone article mentioned above, Benni’s college coach said that he was “shy, listless and ambivalent” when he arrived at Baylor University. O.k., then why saddle yourself with the specter of your country’s greatest tennis idol, Boris Becker, when you’re already 25 years old, new on the tour, and fighting your way up the rankings? Why make life difficult for yourself?
Maybe that’s the only clothing deal Benni was offered and he’s smart to make money while he can. Apparel companies prefer signing young and upcoming stars – Boris himself signed a clothing deal with Ellesse when he was a promising 15 years old – but it doesn’t seem like a smart strategy to me.
We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.