The People's Choice

Boris Becker with the Wimbledon men's singles trophy in 1985. The German star has been voted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. — Pic. GETTY IMAGES-

Boris Becker's big game — and a big personality to match it — has put him into the Hall of Fame.

BORIS BECKER is one of the rare athletes who became bigger than his sport. While the men's tour has often been dominated by mechanical marvels like Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, Becker, who won six Grand Slam titles, was a showman in short pants, hurling his body at the ball like a wide receiver on a touchdown catch.

That combination of athleticism and accomplishment has gotten Becker voted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. (Players are considered for the Hall five years after retirement.) He'll be inducted on July 12, in Newport, Rhode Island. "To be among the greatest of our sport, my heroes, is a very, very big honour for me," says Becker, genuinely moved by the gesture.

Becker's popularity in the U.S. puts him in even more elite company. Born in Leimen, Germany, he's one of the few foreign male players, along with Sweden's Bjorn Borg and Australia's Patrick Rafter, who've become household names in this country during the Open era. Not an easy feat. Just ask Carlos Moya, Lleyton Hewitt, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov — Grand Slam champions all, but players who haven't connected with the American sports audience.

"Belly-flopping Boris captivated Americans from the start," says writer and commentator Bud Collins, "the seventeen-year-old who tamed Wimbledon and remained a big-game player who made his living daringly by serve and volleying. He would have been a tight end if he'd been born in the U.S. Fortunately for tennis, he wasn't. He was the foreign star who seemed American, like a big farm boy."

While Collins felt Becker's charisma from the broadcast booth, Patrick McEnroe got a taste of it on the court. "Wilander and Edberg were well known, but Boris had a special relationship with the fans," McEnroe says. "He let people in, wore his emotions on his sleeve. That's what makes people respond to you as an athlete."

If Becker was big in the U.S., he was larger than life in Germany. A year after his first Wimbledon victory, in 1985, some 200,000 kids took up the game, starting with lessons on how to do the "Boris Belly-flop" on gym mats.

Becker was just a kid himself when he began showing a thoughtful and philosophical side. He complained of stereotyping when British newspapers nicknamed him "Boom Boom," described his wins as "blitzkriegs," and ran headlines like GERMANY BOMBS WIMBLEDON, AGAIN. In 1987, when he failed to defend his Wimbledon title for a third straight year, he mused, "I didn't lose a war. No one died."

His golden-boy image was tarnished in 1991 when he went public with his romance with Barbara Feltus, the daughter of an African-American serviceman and a white German woman. The couple received death threats and one German newspaper wailed, WHY NOT ONE OF US? Becker and Feltus gave Germans a shock to their senses by doing a nude John-and-Yoko-style photo for a magazine cover, and they threatened to leave the country if the racist rants didn't stop.

And stop they did. By the mid 1990s, after they married and their son Noah was born, the Beckers became the faces of a new undivided Germany. Becker continued to win tennis tournaments, including his final Slam, the 1996 Australian Open, while his wife agonised in the players' box with every point.

Of course, all sports fairy tales end, and by 1997 Becker's ranking had slipped out of the Top 20. At 32 he could have hung around the tour, but making the occasional quarterfinal wasn't good enough for him and he retired.

It was then that Becker's path took a couple of wrong turns. First, he was involved in a paternity suit that coincided with an ugly divorce from Barbara. Not long after those two cases were settled, he found himself back in court, accused of tax evasion. In a trial in 2002, Becker admitted to keeping a home in Germany while claiming to live in the tax haven of Monaco. He was given two years of probation and fined an undisclosed amount.

But just as he picked himself off the court after all those belly-flops, Becker says he's back on his feet in his personal life. "It does feel good to leave it all behind and concentrate on the good things in life," Becker says. Those good things include a healthy relationship with Feltus and their two children, Noah and Elias, and business ventures such as owning several Mercedes dealerships in Germany and part-ownership of Volkl Racquet Sports. He's also the publisher of Germany's Tennis Magazin and a commentator for the BBC for the Queen's Club tournament and Wimbledon.

Only the athlete has retired. The icon will continue. — Bill Gray