Tennis needs the all-action, all-passion Becker

What’s wrong with Boris Becker? The German superstar who put in a heroic effort to climb to the very top by winning the Australian Open title in January 1991 has not won any major title since then and has now slipped to No. 5 in the rankings. Has the desire gone? Has he lost direction? Surely, at age 24, it cannot be the beginning of a burnout. Or, is it?

What is happening to Boris Becker? Has the man who has played in six of the last seven Wimbledon finals, winning three of them, lost his near-invincible status on his most favourite surface?   -  Getty Images

A week before the start of this year’s Wimbledon championships, Boris Becker was practising with the left handed Argentinian Javier Frana, a friendly journeyman who has done little of significance in the major championships.

It was less than 24 hours after Tomas Smid, Becker’s coach, had returned home to Germany, having parted company with the German megastar after a brief association during which little had happened that either man would count as memorable.

Another day, another time, this — Becker’s split from his coach — would have been a media event to rank alongside the collapse of the Berlin Wall, its ramifications as significant to the German public. Half the German sports press would have swooped in on the greatest Teutonic sport superstar of the modern times.

On this day, however, there were just three or four members of the German sports press on hand to seek confirmation of the split. As we waited for Becker to finish his practice session, an elderly German tennis writer wondered aloud: “What is happening to Boris? Three coaches in 17 months... no Grand Slam title in more than a year... is he finished?”

Well, at 24, the age at which Ivan Lendl won the first of his eight Grand Slam titles, the age when most players start peaking, as great a player as Becker cannot be ‘finished.’

 

“No. Not really,” said the man who has followed Becker’s career for the last eight years. “I think if he doesn’t do well at Wimbledon this year he might think of taking a long break from the game. Nothing is going right for him.”

Indeed, little has gone right for Boris Becker, by his own high standards, in the 16 months since he bludgeoned Lendl off the court in the 1991 Australian Open final, rose to the No. l spot for the first time in his career and then went for a jog outside the National Tennis Centre “to be alone, to be away from the eyes of the world.”

If he needed to be alone, then, in those moments of unrecapturable joy, of unsurpassed glory, then he is very much alone now, too, in these moments of despair.

A man who had always said that his greatest ambition in life was to become the game’s best player, Becker managed to hold on to the No. 1 ranking for a mere 12 weeks last year, three immediately after the Australian Open and nine more following the Wimbledon championship where he was Stiched up by a fellow German in the final.

What is more. Wimbledon ’91 was the last time that the gifted German got past the third round of a Grand Slam event. Since then, Becker has lost to Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands in the third round of last year’s U.S. Open, was beaten by a resurgent John McEnroe in the third round of the Australian Open last January and pulled out of the French Open less than a week before the start of the world’s premier event on clay.

Then, last week, in a city — London — where he has played some of the best tennis of his career and on a surface — grass — which he used as a fantastic springboard to catapult himself to stardom, Becker was at his petulant worst, grumbling and screaming and bouncing his racquet en route to a second round loss to the South African Christo Van Rensburg at the Queens Club tournament, the most prestigious of the Wimbledon warm-up events which he had won as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1985, a memorable first title of what was going to be a great career.

So, what is happening to Boris Becker? Has the man who has played in six of the last seven Wimbledon finals, winning three of them, lost his near-invincible status on his most favourite surface? Was the pathetic defeat by Stich last summer, during which Becker’s game was in tatters and his mental resilience seemed shattered, the start of a career slump which the German appears powerless to arrest?

The comparison may not hold good in the long run — Becker’s many fans and the player himself must hope it will not — but, at this point in time, it is difficult not to bring up the Mats Wilander experience when discussing Becker’s problems after becoming No. l.

Wilander, who won three of the four Grand Slam events in 1988 and unseated Ivan Lendl at the top after the U.S. Open final that year, slid so quickly from the peak as to perhaps make many of his fellow pros wonder if aspiring for the top spot was the best goal to set for themselves.

Now, Becker, a year after he reigned as the best player in the game, has been pushed back to No. 5, behind Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Michael Stich.

Of course, being the fifth best player in the world is not really a worst-case scenario come to life, not even for someone as great as Becker. But the question now is whether Becker has the will and the drive, the physical and mental resources, the determination and the hunger to put his career back on the rails and send it steaming away in the right direction once again.

He says he does, although he still can’t figure out why the media and the public seem more concerned about his career than he himself is. “It all comes down to how much you really love the game. I still love tennis very much and I like to work every day. I can understand players losing their enthusiasm. I can also understand players not getting it back. It’s not at all easy up there,” says the three-time Wimbledon champion.

It is certainly not easy out there. Life at the top in tennis is abnormal business. Philosophers and sages may be fatal to it. And the situation is worse when you are the greatest sports hero in a land that was desperately seeking one, a hero who can do no wrong, a mythical, legendary Teutonic iron-man, at once inspiring and invincible.

“That was my problem. It drove me mad at times,” says Becker. “I am practically working 24 hours a day for more than six years. I can never shake off this Becker, not even after the work is done. Round the clock I am this guy with the famous blue eyes, always and always this guy who is treated like a mascot by the people.”

Well, being a role model may be as much a part of a superstar athlete’s world as airplane travel and living out of suitcases. But for someone who came into the game at 16 and became a megastar at 17, the adjustments are that much more difficult to make. It would have perhaps been easier if Becker had come out of New York or Los Angeles rather than Leimen in Germany.

“Being a celebrity is like being raped. There is absolutely nothing a player can do about it,” said McEnroe a long time ago. Becker did bravely hold up the flag of revolt, protesting the role he was forced to play. It was a battle that began early in his career, but one that would never end.

Boris Becker might be down, but don’t count the fighting German out.   -  Getty Images

 

The crux of Becker’s problem is this: he wants the world to understand that there is more to life than tennis, that the Boris Becker we see on the tennis courts is not the only one there is, that he is just another normal young man with normal hopes of good times and girlfriends and holidays in the sun.

It’s like an actor who is typecast trying to prove that, in real life, he is far removed from his legendary screen image. It’s a tough job.

What Becker doesn’t seem to understand is that he will never be able to successfully sell the private Boris to the public. Being the celebrity he is, the public only knows him as the mighty champion.

And when something happens to sully this image, when cracks appear in his armour, eyebrows are raised. The public becomes as confused as the champion who is struggling to achieve some kind of psychological quiet, a touch of inner peace and harmony.

The first time that Becker tried to make the world understand his own perspective of the game and his priorities was in the summer of 1987 when he lost in the second round to the rangy Australian Peter Doohan. “I just lost a tennis match,” he said. “I am not immortal. It was just a tennis match. Not a war.”

As it were, the war had begun. The war against misconceptions, false images. Along the way, the brilliant German won a few battles and lost many, making and breaking several relationships — with coaches and women — winning and losing many titles.

Then, other stars appeared on the horizon, the Agassis and the Stiches and the Couriers and the world of tennis seemed less obsessed with Boris Becker. He went without a Grand Slam title in 1990 and then recharged his batteries to capture his first Australian Open title in January 1991.

It was coronation time. And the problems began once again. Physical well-being eluded Becker and his legs turned wooden at the wrong time — as in the Wimbledon final last year — and everything seemed part of another dark conspiracy.

Now, the question is, should he not do well at the ongoing championships at Wimbledon, and then struggle through the rest of the year — an unlikely scenario in this writer’s judgment — will Becker turn his back on the game, at least for a while?

No, he says. He says he wants another Wimbledon title but not for the sake of the title, really.

“At this point in my life, it’s all about being happy and finding a way in life to achieve that goal,” says Becker. “It’s no longer about trying to win titles. It’s about trying to let free all the things inside me.”

Tennis as a means to freedom? Well, that seems something of an anachronism in the context of the modern game. But maybe, at long last, the Herman Hesse of the modern game has overcome the turmoil, has found his pace, has achieved an oneness with the game he plays so well, offering us such high entertainment value. One would certainly hope he has.

For, Boris Becker at his best — when his body is behaving and his mind is uncluttered — is one of the most memorable sights in the game. There can be no doubt that he is one of the greatest performers (not synonymous with players) of the Open Era. Those who have been lucky enough to have had ringside seats in the private theatre of Boris Becker know how magnificently riveting the performances can be.

Most of all, Becker has the power to make the game better. He brings a certain passion to the centrestage that neither Edberg nor Courier can do. And, at a time when two of the most absorbing personalities of our time — John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors — are ready to leave the game, those who believe that sport is all about personalities would pray for a Becker resurgence.

This article was published in The Sportstar on June 27, 1992.