As I wrapped up a Zoom interview with Benjamin Becker on Friday, it occured to me how odd this must all be for him. We’d just finished watching a 36-year-old Andre Agassi in tears after Becker had beaten him at the 2006 U.S. Open, in the last match of his career. Becker, now an assistant coach for the Michigan men’s tennis team, agreed to watch some of the match over Zoom and talk about a moment that is more defining and more significant for his opponent than for himself.
Unless you follow the ATP Tour closely, Becker’s name won’t stand out. He played professionally for 12 years, climbing as high as the top 40 and winning one title, the 2009 Ordina Open — a 250-point grass court tournament on grass held in Rosmalen, a town in the Netherlands’ North Brabant province. So, since that fateful day in 2006, Becker has been asked about that Agassi match. When you end a Hall of Famer’s career, the moment can overshadow your own accomplishments.
“Sometimes it is annoying that you always get kind of, everybody looks at this match and always talks to you about that match and also compares you to that match and expects something,” Becker said. “… During my career, to be honest, it was getting annoying because everybody would just talk to you about it and it’s all they ask. But now afterwards, now I can sit down and talk about it a little bit more as well and get to enjoy the match.”
The match itself, a 7-5, 7-6, 4-6, 7-5 win for Becker, is more competitive than Agassi describes in his book, “Open.” After devoting the opening pages to a five-setter against Marcos Baghdatis in the second round and the physical debilitations he was suffering at the time, Agassi gives this one just a few cursory paragraphs. “Becker takes me out in four sets. I can feel the tape of the finish line snap cleanly across my chest,” Agassi writes.
It’s quite a good summary of Agassi’s standing as a beloved 20-year veteran. So imagine Becker, an up-and-comer of 25 to Agassi’s 36, walking into a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium to face one of the game’s all time greats in front of a crowd that is rooting against him. Almost immediately, Becker was facing break point at 0-40, needing Agassi to make a mistake to stay on serve. And somehow, the game’s great returner did just that, hitting a forehand into the net.
“I didn’t play aggressive at all,” Becker said. “I was very passive. I knew how much, how important this is. How much of an impact this can have. I feel like once I saved the first break point, I kind of had confidence I could come back in the game, and so this was a big opportunity for him that he didn’t take advantage at all.”
On-screen, Agassi reacts to the miss visibly. “He knew it right away,” Becker says. “… He missed the big chance.”
The match rolls on to a second set tiebreak and Becker has already lost a point on serve. He goes down 6-4 and nets a forehand.
“You can tell, I wasn’t loose enough in my arms,” Becker says. He’s vastly overestimating my ability to glean from a pixelated video. “I didn’t go to the ball enough. Just moving parallel to the baseline and miss it in the net, which is obvious that I was a little bit too tight in my forearm and too nervous.”
I ask if he can make that diagnosis in real time. “Yes,” he says. “You feel it.”
There’s something to be said here for the level of ability it takes to have even a relatively pedestrian professional tennis career — this fourth round appearance at the 2006 U.S. Open was his best ever at a major and he was never ranked higher than 35th in the world. That resume is easy to overlook. In reality, it takes incredible skill to get that far.
He says his serve was a weakness in juniors, but here it’s a weapon. He’s throwing one of the great returners of all time off his game, winning 13 straight points on serve during the first set. By the time we get to the fourth set, with Becker facing a fifth down 5-4, he’s telling me how tired he was, cramping up in the August sun. On the screen, Agassi is hunched over and barely moving — he had collapsed walking to his car after his second round match — and they’re still playing through.
Becker watches his own second serve just hit the line. He’s down set point. After a few groundstrokes, Agassi sails a forehand out.
“I got really lucky,” he says. “You can see I’m not moving at all. … He was kinda surprised by my mishit and just doesn’t move to the ball at all and just frames it as well. I got really lucky on this point for sure.”
On screen, it looks like Agassi has missed his chance. In the present, Becker is talking about how he didn’t want to call out the trainer for cramps or show weakness. He comes back to win the game and tie the set at five, then decides to go for it. To that point, he’d been conserving energy on Agassi’s service games, but now he gets handed a point to make it 15-0.
“You have more in you than you think,” Becker says, describing his mindset. “You can do more. I know you’re trying to be a little bit conservative if you have energy on his service games, but now is the time to make a push.”
He wins the game and serves out the match. The crowd gives Agassi an ovation. The younger Becker is shuffled off screen. Now, despite recalling exactly how he mishit a forehand in the second set of this match, Becker doesn't remember this part especially well.
“I don't know what we said at the net,” Becker says. “I don’t know what happened after. I remember the interview, just barely. I remember they kind of told me to leave and go into the tunnel, just to kind of give him room for his speech and then I came back to sign some autographs. I remember this part, but it’s all more of a blur.”
Soon after, Becker lost to Andy Roddick, an eventual finalist in the tournament that year and its champion in 2003. A few months ago, he watched back the whole match for the first time when a German TV station asked him to participate for Agassi’s 50th birthday. He wasn’t irked by the request.
“I learned a lot from the match to be honest,” he said. “But I enjoy (it) way more now than I did during my career.”
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