Key to Davis Cup Is Lurking in Becker's Shadow : Victories Over Steeb--West Germany's No. 2 Player--Are Crucial for the U.S.

Times Sports Editor

It is the eve of the Davis Cup semifinals and a strange thing is happening in the beer halls and town squares, where the main sport usually getting kicked around is soccer.

Tennis is on peoples' minds in this, the land of Boris Becker and Steffi Graff. And Davis Cup tennis against the always-powerful and ever-pretentious United States is plenty to think and talk about.

But surprisingly, while the thoughts and adoration might still center on Becker, a superstar here like few others anywhere, the talk is about somebody else, somebody named Carl-Uwe Steeb.

Steeb is a name that, even for fairly knowledgeable tennis fans, draws blanks.

Steeb could qualify as the Rodney Dangerfield of the pro tennis circuit. When he upset Andre Agassi this spring in the first round of the Lipton International at Key Biscayne, Fla., Agassi said afterward he had never heard of the guy.

Indeed, as the old line goes, Carl-Uwe Steeb is a household word only in his own household.

But that has started to change recently, and could change a great deal more this weekend.

Steeb is a 21-year-old who is the No. 2 singles player on a West German team that is defending Davis Cup champion. Despite his lack of fame, he has taken his world ranking from well up in the 100s a year ago to No. 23. Last Sunday, he won a clay court tournament at Gstaad, Switzerland.

So, he is a comer, a man on the rise. Also, he is a man on the spot.

When West Germany plays host to the United States today, Saturday and Sunday at the sold-out Olympiahalle, Steeb is expected to be the reason for his team's success or failure. While all West German eyes will be on Becker during his presumed singles victories over Agassi and Brad Gilbert, all West German fingers will be crossed for Steeb against the same American pair. To the fans here, Becker is a sure thing and Steeb is a certain maybe.

When they held the draw Thursday for order of play, the pressure increased for Steeb, who drew the first match and Gilbert as his opponent. The featured match of the night, the one that will draw the most attention, will be Becker vs. Agassi, two of the top players in the world, and two of the more entertaining players in the game today.

But as far as which team ends up advancing to the Davis Cup finals in December, against the winner of this weekend's Sweden-Yugoslavia semifinal, Steeb vs. Gilbert might hold the most importance.

"Steeb's the guy we're gunning for, he's the No. 1 target," said Ken Flach, doubles player on the U.S. team. "We've gotta win one of the first two matches and we hope Brad (Gilbert) will get us off to a good start."

Agassi, who will play Steeb in the first match on Sunday, leaving Becker and Gilbert for the fifth match and a possible showdown at 2-2, echoed Flach's sentiments.

"On paper, Steeb is our gimmie," he said. "Even if we give Becker two matches, we should win two against Steeb."

With that scenario, the winner would then be determined by Saturday's doubles. The United States will send their specialists, Flach and Robert Seguso, against Becker and Eric Jelen, or Jelen and a substitute for Becker, probably lefty Patrick Kuhnen.

"That's how it worked against them in 1987 in Hartford," Flach said. "Becker played a long first-round match and they held him out of the doubles and substituted for him. If we played Becker and Jelen Saturday, it will be the first time we've ever faced them."

There is much similarity between what Steeb is facing here this weekend and what he faced in April in Prague, when West Germany defeated Czechoslovakia, 3-2, to keep its hopes of a Davis Cup repeat alive.

Steeb had his first moment of glory last December in the Davis Cup final in Sweden, when he stunned Mats Wilander in the West German's 4-1 victory in the final. But he played the first match against the Czechs and lost, in straight sets, to the slow and awkward Milan Srejber. After Becker made the score 1-1, the Czechs won in doubles, leaving the heavily favored West Germans one match from elimination, with Steeb facing Karel Novacek and Becker facing Srejber.

Steeb won, then Becker won, and now the West Germans have a chance to gain their second straight final.

And a lot is riding on the performance of Carl-Uwe Whatshisname.

Davis Cup Notes

This marks the second straight Davis Cup match in which West Germany's chances are likely enhanced by a late injury to the opponent's top player. Against Czechoslovakia in the quarterfinals, Czech star Miloslav Mecir backed out an hour before the Thursday draw because of a bad back. Same thing happened with John McEnroe, who had to withdraw because of an arm injury last weekend. . . . ESPN's telecasts will be from 6-8:30 p.m. today, 9:00 a.m.-noon on Saturday and 1:30-4:00 p.m. Sunday. All will be on tape delays. . . . Information previously given out by the U.S. Tennis Assn. that had a winning U.S. team playing a Davis Cup final in Charlotte, N.C., no matter whether Yugoslavia or Sweden won their semifinal, was incorrect. If the U.S. wins, it will play Sweden in Charlotte or Yugoslavia in Yugoslavia. Wherever they are played, the finals are Dec. 15-17. . . . Ken Flach on Brad Gilbert: "The guy's a journeyman. That's why he is such a good pick for this last-minute fill-in for McEnroe. Brad's the kind of guy who can play a tournament in Tel Aviv, fly for 36 hours, get off the plane and be ready to play some more. He's a competitor, and he's used to pressure."

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