Tuesday, February 3, 2009

sports? michael!

the day before yesterday, i played my first best of five match of tennis in over half a year. i had bought myself a new racquet, new tennis shoes… ready to get back on the court, for good. last time i had played was against my cousin kley, with whom i hope to have some regular match ups after july this year. i was victorious by the way – against kley. yesterday, fabio ussher, a really special person, beat me 6x0,6x1,6x0… for next match, my goal is to win one game per set!
by the way, yesterday was another of those thrilling matchups between federer and nadal, which the spaniard won once again, after a long fight. the tennis they have been playing the last couple of years is something i’ve never seen before. and i’ve been watching and playing tennis for a long time.
it was 1988. one year earlier, a 17 year old boris becker had entered a grand slam tournament for the first time, in wimbledon. and he won the championships, as they are called in the uk, making history and continuing a tennis boom in germany that had started with the rise of steffi graf, a young german who was threatening navratilova’s kingdom. but in that year, 1988, becker repeated his Wimbledon success before the eyes of a whole nation, while steffi won the historical golden grand slam – all four grand slam open tournaments in the same year (only woman to do that) and even the gold medal in south korea. tennis was all over the tv, and soon, i was playing tennis myself. but i was not a becker fan (more of a steffi fan), kind of looking for a german to root for. at that time, i was already reading kicker and sport bild, the two biggest sport magazines in the country, and once i looked at the tennis world ranking – and found a german called michael stich at position 81. the city behind his name was, for some reason, munich (obviously a mistake, because he was actually born north of hamburg), and for that simple reason, i became a fan. even more so, as i saw interviews with this very intelligent and kind person, different from boris, who was more of a not-so-clever star with a great heart. note, i didn’t dislike becker, but i became a stich fan very early. little could i know about what was to come.
in 1991, it was time for wimbledon again. becker was playing well once again, in his living room, as he would say – the grassy center court in north london, getting brown after each competition day. but this guy, stich, was still in the tournament at the quarter-final stage – and, incredibly, advanced to the semifinal, to face the then reigning champ stefan edberg (sweden), who had won the tournament three times and was considered becker’s great rival in wimbledon. i was watching, as almost the whole country was, to see if the dark haired stich could follow the blond becker into the final – and make it a historical day for tennis-crazed germany. stich lost the first set 4x6, but won the tiebreaker in the second set… the tiebreaker in the third set… and the tiebreaker in the fourth set! at the end, it was a 4x6,7x6,7x6,7x6 thriller. to make things even better, graf won the title the next day, but i was looking forward to the sunday final: “my” michael stich, now well known in germany, against good old (21 years old, but so experienced) boris becker. the underdog against the shiny star. kind of a piquet against senna, in terms of popularity. it was a day to remember. there was only one break in the whole final – but stich, once again nerves of steel, managed to win it 7x6,6x4,7x6 – a totally uneasy 3x0 win, making him the name of the day!
stich never got to number one in the rankings (he made number two), and he had quite a few other good moments in his career – like victories over pete sampras (one of the few players to have a positive record against the man who has won more grand slam events than any other in history), two year-ending world championships, finals in australian open and us open, davis cup titles with germany, a historical doubles-win in wimbledon alongside john mcenroe (last set 19-17) and a gold medal in the 1992 barcelona olympics – alongside boris becker, in the doubles.
in 1997, stich announced his retirement right before the wimbledon tournament. he hadn’t been to successful anymore, and his motivation seemed low – he wanted to try doing other things with his life. i tuned into that wimbledon, a tournament that had always motivated him – and incredibly enough, he made it into the semifinal! cheered by a crowd that never forgets its champions, even more so if they are decent human beings, he had a thrilling five set encounter with frenchman fabric santoro, and even defended match points in the fourth set with extremely courageous one-handed backhand return winners. but it was not to be. in front of a great crowd, on a great friday afternoon, his then wife jessica (very charming) saw him end his career. it was a great moment in sports and a great moment for me. stich had been a special person to me, and until today is in a short list of my absolute favorite sportsman of all time.
almost twelve years later. german tennis boom is gone. there are good players (schüttler, kiefer, haas, kohlschreiber), bit it’s nothing compared to the golden nineties. i still love the sport, though. i guess i owe most of that to becker and graf – but the special person in that sport for me was michael stich.