Tennis legend Boris Becker spoke about fame, youth and the modern game during his visit to the Cambridge Union.
In the summer of 1985, a ginger-haired German teenager shocked the sporting world by winning Wimbledon. With his crushing serve and gung-ho net play, he instantly endeared himself to tennis fans. The following year, at the tender age of 18, Boris Becker defended his crown after defeating world No.1 Ivan Lendl. He would go on to win another Wimbledon, and three more Grand Slam titles. “It was the greatest job in the world,” Becker told the Union on Sunday, with a twinkle in his eye. “It was my greatest addiction.”
The start of Becker’s love affair with tennis was not especially romantic though. “I didn’t know what I was doing at 16 or at 17,” he admitted. “You just go with the flow. You’re happy to get out of home, you’re happy that you don’t have to come back at nine because your Mum wants you in bed. So I took all opportunities that I got. My tool was my tennis racket.”
Indeed Becker’s parents were lukewarm to the idea of pursuing tennis when he left school at 16. “They wanted me to get an education and go to university,” he said. “My parents had to be convinced more than once that I was one of the best tennis players at 16 and should give it a try for two years. I knew I had to hurry up winning, if I wasn’t going to be winning then I had to go back to school. I think that was one of the reasons that I won Wimbledon at 17.”
Even then, he recalled his principal calling him in weeks after his historic victory to convince him to return to school, thousands of fans and TV cameras outside. Needless to say, he did not ask him back again.
While limited on the slower clay courts, Becker was imperious on the hallowed turf of Centre Court, his formidable first serve earning him the nickname ‘Boom-Boom’. He was an arch showman, and his trademark dive became firmly enshrined in Wimbledon folklore. But he was an essential flagbearer for German sport too, carrying West Germany to successive Davis Cup victories before taking the men’s doubles gold medal at the Olympics with fellow countryman Michael Stich in 1992. His career was not without its turbulence, issues back home over his marriage to Barbara Feltus, whose mother was German and father was African American, as well as tax problems with the German government, sending his career into decline. Nevertheless he was supremely prolific, with 49 singles and 15 doubles titles in all.
In 2013, as part of the flurry of super coaches that saw Roger Federer team up with Stefan Edberg and Andy Murray with Ivan Lendl, Novak Djokovic hired Becker as his coach. “I was in Johannesburg on a conference and his agent called me,” he explained. “He said would you be interested in coaching Novak. I said why, he’s No.2 in the world. And he says well, that’s the problem!”
The German touched on analysing the game for Djokovic, how he felt comfortable picking apart his game because of his own vast experience. But for Becker, in their first meeting in Monte Carlo, it boiled down to desire. “Tennis has to be number one, family two,” he recalled saying to him. “That’s the way it is, otherwise we stay friends but I can’t coach. The reason to go to Melbourne [the Australian Open] is to win Melbourne.”
Three prolific years followed, picking up five Grand Slams and 14 Masters before the two parted in company at the end of 2016. In light of these words, it perhaps comes as no surprise to have seen Djokovic so burnt out in 2017. When his wife Lilly Becker, quizzed him on whether he’d accept a return to Djokovic’s camp, Becker said he would be honoured, but the answer would be no.
Since retiring in 1999, Becker has also become a stalwart of the BBC’s tennis coverage. When asked who he has loved commentating on most over the years, the answer was simple. “Federer and Nadal, because of their history to the game and their greatness,” he said firmly. “Any era needs a rivalry, two great players. They are true ambassadors for our game. They are two of the most popular sportsmen of all time. It’s to the point that their practices are televised live on Facebook. Sometimes you get five, seven, ten thousand people just watching them practice. That’s the fame and glory these players have achieved.”
But Becker was quick to qualify his reverence with the concern that is plaguing the ATP at the moment. “Those big four [Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray] have dominated the game for 12, 14 years. The question is who can take over. Are these players [the next generation] good enough. Do they want the responsibility, can they carry the game into the next five or ten years. I wonder whether that’s too much pressure.”
“I wasn’t the youngest. You had the likes of Michael Chang, Jim Courier that won other Grand Slams when they were teenagers. Now when you’re 22, 23 you’re still called young. I think it’s an excuse,” he remarked, citing Nadal’s recent 6-1 6-2 demolition of 22 year old Nick Kyrgios in the China Open final.
For the serve-volley specialist Becker, he equally attributed the Big Four’s dominance to a lack of variation in the modern game, an accusation typically exclusively levelled at women’s tennis. “I miss a little bit the days of more variety, more technique, the backhand slice, the serve and volley. A baseliner against a serve and volley player. Most players play very similar.”
While it seems that few nowadays can talk about the modern game without discussing format changes, Becker was dismissive. “Tennis is more popular now than it’s ever been, so something must be right about the sport,” he said. “What I would change is scheduling. We have way too many so-called important tournaments. That’s where the players struggle and they get injured and Andy’s not playing at the moment and Novak, because everyone wants them somewhere every week. I would change the amount of tournaments they should play. Less tournaments and more points maybe for the Grand Slams.”
But on the brink of his 50th birthday next month, it was fitting that the session came to an end looking to what the future holds for Becker. While rumours are swirling that the recently bankrupt German is to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! later this year, his attention was squarely on tennis. “I was named head of men’s tennis in Germany just last month,” he said. “German tennis is very important to me, helping the youngsters and giving advice to coaches. Tennis is changing. I’m on the advisory board of the ATP to help with finding solutions for the younger players too. Tennis has many different layers and I’ve been part of it for 35 years. That will be my professional future.” 32 years on from his first Wimbledon triumph, it is clear that Becker’s love-affair with tennis is still very strong.
Best of the rest…
Q: Do you think at 17 you could have beaten Federer and Nadal?
A: Federer would have been one match too far. Against Nadal I would have liked my chances on grass.
Q: What do you make of John McEnroe’s comments on changing the sport’s rules? Would you change anything?
A: He’s promoting his book. You say things when the days are long…
On his rivalry with John McEnroe: We really beat each other up with the racket and the language we used. I wasn’t that good in English at 18, but after I played John my English improved rapidly. I learnt words that I’d never heard before.”
Q: What is your favourite dance?
A: As long as I can dance with you [his wife, Lilly Becker] that’s my favourite dance.
Q: Do you wish that you had won a Wimbledon title later in your career?
A: I think I would have become a better tennis player. After winning at 17 every tournament I played was judged against that performance. I was less creative, less risky, I was trying to repeat what I had done. I would have been more mature when fame and fortune hit me. At 17, 18 you have no idea who you are let alone explaining it to the world.
Q: If a film was made about you, who would you be played by?
A: Steve McQueen.
Q: Who was the toughest player you ever faced?
A: Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.