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Curren Gets Early Exit This Time : 1985 Finalist Wastes Four Match Points, Loses to Jelen

Times Staff Writer

If they still played by the old rules of tennis, there would have been nothing for Wimbledon’s king of singles to do Monday. It would have been Boris Becker’s day off.

From 1878 to 1921, the men’s defending champion had but one thing to do to qualify for the final: Show up. Automatically he was seeded into the tournament’s championship match, to play the winner of the “All-Comers” competition that involved, well, everybody else who showed up.

So, for example, when Tony Wilding of New Zealand won Wimbledon in 1910, it took him eight matches to do so. But when he repeated in 1911, 1912 and 1913, Wilding played one match per tournament. Nice work if you can get it.

No such luck for Becker, the West German teen idol who won here a year ago. On the first day of this 100th Wimbledon tournament, Becker had to go right back to work--and quick work it was, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 over Eduardo Bengoechea of Argentina in 79 minutes.

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He feels fine, and the tendinitis in his racket hand stops bothering him about 15 minutes into his warm-up, Becker said. He feels fit enough to win this thing again.

“There is just one little problem,” he said. “I have six more matches to play.”

Even so, Becker is better off than the man he beat in last year’s final.

Kevin Curren has no more matches to play.

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Messing up four match points in the final set, Curren lost a 3-hour 17-minute match with Eric Jelen, 6-4, 6-7, 2-6, 6-4, 12-10, giving him back-to-back Wimbledon defeats to young West Germans. Last round and first round.

Wimbledon historian Alan Little went leafing back through 110 years of records, past Lew Hoad, Fred Perry, Bill Tilden and Wilding, but he could not find a single instance of a man making the final one year and being eliminated in the opening round the next.

What made this Curren event even more embarrassing was the fact that Monday’s match marked the first Wimbledon appearance for Jelen, and only the third match he had ever played on grass.

Jelen (Yay-len) is 21 years old and in the West German Army. Asked his rank, he claimed not to know what it is.

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“General after this,” a West German journalist quipped.

Jelen abruptly halted his halting English and broke into a flurry of German.

“He says he is a soldier,” his countryman translated. “That is his rank.”

A rank that mattered more was No. 32, which is where Jelen was most recently listed by the Association of Tennis Professionals’ computer. At the end of 1985, he was ranked No. 192, behind all sorts of All-Comers.

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Although encouraged by Becker’s success of a year ago, Jelen did not expect to do so well at his first Wimbledon, particularly when the draw placed him against the wicked-serving American who had bumped off Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on his way to the 1985 final.

“Before the match, I was thinking I only have a small chance to win,” Jelen said.

He could not have known that Curren’s serve would desert him, or that arguments with an umpire would rattle him, to the extent that Curren once was stripped of a point by the umpire for verbal abuse. The American also spent considerable time flinging his racket to the ground.

Afterward, Curren had nothing but good things to say about his opponent, and nothing good to say about British umpires in general, remarking that they “get a little bit uppity . . . they’re overcome by the (Wimbledon) environment and almost think that they’re the show.”

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Of Jelen, Curren said: “I had never seen him play, and what I knew of him I knew from talking to other players. I was impressed with what I saw. He’s dangerous all around, a very solid player.”

Jelen endured a triple match point in the fifth set, down, 5-4, and fought off another match point when Curren had him at the exit door once more, 8-7. But Curren was unable to summon up a big serve to put him away.

“I never got into any rhythm where I could dominate or dictate with my serve,” Curren said. “And I was very surprised by his movement.”

The defeat particularly galled Curren because he thought he had a favorable draw in what he considered the most wide-open Wimbledon in years. “This one is anybody’s,” he said. “Whoever gets hot for two weeks can win.”

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The favorite continues to be Ivan Lendl, although, before Monday’s play was suspended by rain, Lendl was not exactly pummeling his first-round opponent, 18-year-old Leonardo Lavalle of Mexico, the 1985 Wimbledon junior champion. Lendl took the first set in a tiebreaker and was behind, 1-0, in the second when the match was postponed.

Rain also wiped out Jimmy Connors’ scheduled match with Robert Seguso, which was to be Connors’ first appearance since suffering a pulled groin muscle.

Britain’s John Lloyd, husband of Chris Evert, said Connors looked healthy to him. “I have hit with Jimmy over the last week, and anyone with any sense should get their money on him at odds of 16-1,” Lloyd said. “I’ve also hit with Boris (Becker) and the bounce of last year is missing. He knows defending the title will be harder than winning it.”

Becker seemed pretty bouncy Monday, especially when he returned to Centre Court for the first time since beating Curren for the championship. Bengoechea, in the waiting room near the court, was not familiar with protocol and asked the old 18-year-old pro Becker what to do when he took the court.

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“I told him to bow and then lose the first service so we can have a nice match,” the smiling Becker said.

When the nice match was over, Becker presented a check for 3,080 pounds ($4,620)--guaranteed earnings for anyone reaching at least the second round--to the Duchess of Kent as a gift to the UNICEF charity’s fund for children.

Nice kid.

Wimbledon Notes

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Monday’s play brought something new to Wimbledon, something that broke tradition: yellow balls. Even Wimbledon finally conceded that it is difficult to find white tennis balls these days. . . . Mats Wilander did get his first match in before the rain, beating Scott Davis, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. . . . Vijay Amritraj of India, who upset France’s Henri Leconte in the final of last week’s pre-Wimbledon tournament and seemed ready for a comeback, lost in the first round to Wojtek Fibak of Poland, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. . . . Martina Navratilova, on the prospects of a women’s final between her and Chris Evert Lloyd: “I’m not writing anyone off, but if I had to put money on it, I’d back Chris and me to be in the final. It’s not quite the same as putting money into government bonds, but almost.”


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