In recent years, it’s been more likely that you’ll stumble across an article relating to Boris Becker’s private life, his wife and children, than anything related to tennis. It is easy for the younger generation of tennis viewers to forget the impact that this man had on the ATP tour during his stellar career.
After winning Wimbledon in 1985, at the tender age of 17, the German had broken three records as the youngest winner, the first German to win the title, and the first un-seeded player to do so. And while many people might assume he must have trained meticulously from toddlerhood as so many of today’s top players have, Becker didn’t actually play tennis competitively until the age of eight. He readily admits that dreams of tennis stardom were far from his mind as a youngster.
“The plan from my parents for me was to finish school, go to university, get a proper degree and learn something respectful. The last thing on everyone’s mind was me becoming a tennis professional,” he says candidly.
Relaxing in a lounge area of one of London’s private member’s clubs, Becker is surprisingly soft spoken. Despite his quite imposing frame, something which doesn’t quite come across on television, the former world number one appears unexpectedly shy, but is happy to sit down for a few minutes to discuss his experiences in the world of tennis.
Despite his early lack of dedication to the sport, Becker soon found that it was the only sensible way forward:
“I became a professional at 15, and I happened to win a lot of junior tournaments early on, so it was bound to be the next step. I decided to give it a try for two years at 16, and take a break from school. But nobody could have imagined that I would win my first Wimbledon the first time I played.”
Most tennis players spend their entire career struggling to reach the ultimate goal, a Grand Slam title. Yet Becker had achieved it on his first attempt, and evidently it wasn’t a fluke. He went on to make another six finals, winning in 1986 and 1989. He also won an Olympic gold, the US Open, the Australian Open (twice) and a number of other tour titles. He’d reached the number one spot by 1991. But all this success came so quickly that a lesser player might have lacked the motivation to continue. Even Becker admits that there were times when he wasn’t fully committed to the sport.
“I had won so much by 22, a number of Wimbledon titles, US Open, Davis Cup, World number one. You look for the next big thing and that isn’t in tennis.”
And while many athletes stick to their comfort zone and remain in the sport after their retirement, Becker didn’t feel compelled to concentrate solely on tennis at that point either.
“Usually by the time you are 30-35, your first profession, sport, is over and you have to look for something else,” he says. “There would have been many possibilities for me to play on the senior’s tour, and just work in the field of tennis as a commentator or journalist but I just wanted to get away and do something that had nothing to do with tennis.”
But did he miss the fame and adulation of pro tennis? Did life after sport take some adjustment?
“Not so much with the attention. I was in my sport because I wanted to win, and I thought I was good at it. Attention was something that came with it, but it didn’t really matter.
“Scheduling and the discipline you have to bring is a different story. I loved the fact that afterwards I didn’t have a tight schedule, I could sleep in more, I could eat what I wanted to, I could have a glass of wine or five at night and it doesn’t matter the next day.”
All that being said, Becker’s desire to win and prove himself against the best remains. He admits that had he had the chance to play against the stars of the current era, he would have taken it in a heartbeat.
“I would have loved to play Nadal on grass, absolutely. I would have loved to play Djokovic on grass, absolutely. And guess what, I’m talking here for Stefan Edberg, for Patrick Rafter, for Goran Ivanisovic, for guys that were all natural grass-court players. Not many of today’s players would have beaten us.”
Despite his insistence that the standard of tennis today is no better than his own era, the Slam winner does have high respect for the way in which this era’s players, particularly Federer and Nadal, have put tennis back on the map.
“The reason that tennis is so successful today is because of the rivalry between Nadal and Federer. They really took tennis to another level. Just the way they look, the way they behave. One is left handed, one is right handed. You see the calculated Swiss, and you see the passionate Spaniard. There couldn’t be more contrast, and yet they both play amazing tennis.”
And what of Andy Murray? Last year Becker indicated that a lack of success in Grand Slams is down to a weak mentality. I pose the question of whether, given the consistent lack of tennis talent among British men whilst Spain and France regularly dominate the top 100, there is something in the British mentality that holds sportsmen back. This quite depressing suggestion is met with agreement.
“You see it in the national football team. You have great talented players, but for some reason in tournaments you’re not as successful as you should be. It’s partly because of this mentality that winning isn’t everything. Spain and France have a different motivation, a different point of view, a different structure altogether in sports, and I think that’s why they’re a little more successful.
Of course we can’t ignore Djokovic, who had a 2011 tour performance that put his rivals to shame. Becker predicts that he will be a likely candidate to end the year as number one. While he feels that Federer will emerge “rejuvenated” for the year, there are doubts in his mind as to the longevity of Nadal’s career.
“How much can a man run, how much can he grunt, how much can he fight?” Becker ponders. “Nadal is the most incredible tennis warrior out there, but there is a limit to it.”
Admittedly, Nadal did take his eighth Monte-Carlo title just last week, temporarily silencing the doubters once again. But with a knee niggle having forced him to retire from the Miami Masters at the beginning of the month; it is unlikely that the critics will stay quiet for long.
The last question that has to be asked of Becker, now that he’s had time to reflect on his achievements, is whether there are still regrets that plague him. His answer is typically philosophical.
“I think I was the type of player that, if there was a way to win, I usually found it. And if I didn’t, the other guy was better. I think one of the most important rules in tennis, maybe in life, is that you cannot win all the time. There are a number of reasons when you meet somebody else that is just a bit better in whatever you’re doing. And you have to learn to accept it, that it’s ok.”
Olivia Lee – Sports Co-Editor
Interview first published – 26 April 2012