April 19, 1988: The day Vajda defeated Becker, 25 years before collaborating with Djokovic
Each day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On April 19, 1988, Marian Vajda defeated Boris Becker in Monte-Carlo, 25 years before they joined forces to coach Novak Djokovic
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, April 19, 1988, Marian Vajda and Boris Becker, who would work together more than two decades later in Novak Djokovic’s team, faced each other in the second round of the Monte-Carlo Open. To the general astonishment, the Czechoslovakian, ranked No 43 in the world, upset the 6th ranked Becker (6-3, 5-7, 6-1).
The players involved
Boris Becker was born in 1967. In 1985, the German became the youngest ever Wimbledon champion at the age of 17, edging Kevin Curren in the final (6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4). His powerful serve, which he often followed to the net, earned him the nickname “Boom Boom”. He was famous for his spectacular diving volleys, as well as for his dramatic play and emotional outbursts. With his great power, Becker successfully defended his Wimbledon crown in 1986, defeating world No 1 Ivan Lendl in the final (6-4, 6-3, 7-5). That year, the young German claimed 6 titles, including the first Paris-Bercy Open, and climbed to No 2 in the world, but then went through a difficult 1987 season, overwhelmed by his stardom and the expectations around him, even before he turned 20 years old. His best results were winning the Indian Wells Open and reaching the Roland-Garros semi-finals (lost to Mats Wilander, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2), and his biggest disappointment came at Wimbledon, where he was defeated in the second round by world No 70 Peter Doohan (7-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4). In April 1988, the German was ranked No 6.
Marian Vajda, from Czechoslovakia, was born in 1965 and turned pro in 1983. He broke into the top 100 as early as 1985, but until 1987, he obtained most of his remarkable results on the ATP Challenger Tour. That year, he made himself famous on the main Tour when, as a qualifier, he reached the final of the BMW Open in Munich (losing to Guillermo Perez-Roldan, 6-3, 7-6) before claiming his first title in Prague (defeating Tomas Smid in the final, 6-1, 6-3). Thanks to these results, he reached his highest ranking of world No 34.
Located at the top of the Rocher de Monaco, with a unique perspective on the Mediterranean Sea, the Monte-Carlo Country Club hosted one of the oldest international tennis tournaments since 1928. Usually considered as the start of the clay-court season, it was a part of the ATP Masters 1000 category. Amongst its former champions, there was a long list of clay-court terrors, such as Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, and Ivan Lendl.
In 1988, Becker was trying to get back on track after having faced many disappointments the previous year. Having skipped the Australian Open (like 14 of the top 20 players that year), he started well claiming the title at Indian Wells and at the World Championship Tennis (WCT) Finals in Dallas, where he defeated Stefan Edberg (6-4, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2). When Becker faced Marian Vajda, world No 43, in his first match in Monte-Carlo (he had received a first round bye as a seeded player), he was the heavy favourite.
However, with his serve-and-volley game, clay was not the German’s favourite surface. He had reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 1987, but had never played the final of any clay-court event, and in the past 12 months, his only first-round loss came on the red dirt, at Monte-Carlo (defeated by Jimmy Arias, 6-3, 6-3). Since the beginning of the match, Becker lacked patience and gave away too many easy points against a very consistent Vajda, and soon trailed 6-3, 4-1. It looked like the German was going to be going home quickly, but the Czechoslovakian, who had never beaten a top 10 player before, got nervous and Becker managed to take the second set, 7-5. However, the German wasn’t able to seize the momentum. He was broken three times in the final set as Vajda prevailed 6-1.
“Marian made my life difficult out there. He played very, very long balls, and I couldn’t get in. It’s much more difficult for me to get ready on clay. You have to be well prepared. You have to have a few matches under your belt. The longer the rallies were, the worse I played,” said Becker, according to The Los Angeles Times.
“Boris didn’t (use) good tactics today. I was more patient in the rallies, so I felt better. I felt I could have played the ball 100 times over the net and not miss,” explained Vajda.
Boris Becker’s career would peak in the years 1989-1991. In that period, he would claim three Grand Slam titles, and he would finally become world No 1 on January 28, 1991, after he had beaten Ivan Lendl (1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4) to claim his first Australian Open crown. Becker would then struggle in the next few seasons, and in 1993, he would leave the top 10 for the first time in eight years. In 1995, he would finish runner-up to Pete Sampras at the All England Club (6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2) and reach the semi-final at Flushing Meadows. However, in 1996, he would claim his sixth Grand Slam crown in Melbourne, defeating Michael Chang in the final (6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4). His last big result would be the epic final at the 1996 Masters Cup, where he lost to Sampras in five sets.
Marian Vajda would retire in 1994, after claiming two titles in his career. He would then become famous as Novak Djokovic’s coach.
25 years after their first encounter in Monte-Carlo, Becker and Vajda would find themselves teaming up in Djokovic’s team. Together, they would notably lead the Serbian to achieve the career Grand Slam in 2016.