A Smash Hit On His Home Court

Boris Becker used his awesome firepower in West Germany to shoot down the U.S. in Davis Cup play
August 11, 1985

Down the lane rabbits, roosters, ducks and other Kleintierzuchtvereine nibble away in the breeding pens in preparation for the livestock show—or somebody's dinner table. Overhead, mini cable cars crawl along, carrying cement to Heidelberg and back again. Plop-plop go the tennis balls all around. Church bells ring, are you listening? Soft rain falls on the clay. The more things stay the same in Leimen, the more they change.

Oh, little Boris Becker can still be found at the Blau-Weiss Club in the leafy northwest corner of Baden in West Germany. Sometimes he's across the road at the tennis training center. Pictures at both sites chronicle his flight through pubescence. The indoor facility under construction at Blau-Weiss will be called the Boris Becker Tennishalle.

When it is clear and still, the way it always seems to be in this sleepy community of 17,000, one can almost hear the long-ago echo of his coach's commands. "Werf dich, Boris. Werf dich." That would be Boris Breskvar ordering young Becker to fall or lunge or dive onto the burnished dirt courts, to do whatever it took to search out the shot and send it back, thereby demoralizing the opponent and stirring waves of frenzy through the crowd. Breskvar taught Becker this play—the fall and roll, Breskvar calls it—much as a D.I. might interpret the art of parachuting for a recruit. And the kid simply ate it up. Werf dich. Lunge, Boris. Hit the shot. Boom. Hit the dirt. Boom. Little Boom Boom, filthy at last.

Why, all the folks at Blau-Weiss so loved Becker crashing to the ground that they blew up a picture of him doing just that and turned it into an enormous billboard. It sticks out like a satellite dish over the showcase court. Whenever a player looks up for a lob, he must somehow pick out the ball from the gigantic form of Boom Boom Becker. So you see, little Boris is still in Leimen and ever will be back to the future—no matter how many Wimbledons he wins or Davis Cup ties he dominates or legends he creates. "Schollenverbunden," the Germans say. Bound to his native soil.

Of course, he is and he isn't. The family Becker goes back centuries in Leimen. But in 1985, a year in which he has yet to turn 18, he has been in Leimen less than five days. Even his family concedes his home is now Monte (tax-free) Carlo, where he established residency last summer, or anywhere he hangs his Tyrolean hat among the unending progression of hotels, condos and phantasmagoric spas between Leimen and immortality.

Karl-Heinz Becker, the father, an architect who designed Blau-Weiss, has come to accept Boris's peregrinations. However, the mother, Elvira, can't. "She suffers still," says Herr Becker. "This is the tragic part—to lose a son at 17. But I tell her some boys find a girl and go off forever. Boris just found tennis."

Last weekend in Hamburg—just six hours from Leimen up the Autobahn as the maniac Germans drive—Becker manufactured yet another drama in this magical summer by leading his country to a 3-2 win over the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup. And as Becker discovered—poor thing, he hasn't got a steady yet—every girl in West Germany seemed to have found him except the one who mistakenly put a note under the hotel door of a U.S. photographer. "I want your tongue to meet mine," she wrote.

Alas, Becker had little time for mundane romance—or even family affairs. Sabine Becker, 21, had interrupted her architectural studies in Karlsruhe to join her parents and brother in Hamburg. But no sooner would the Beckers settle down to a quiet moment together than the Baby Boomer would be tugged away for a team meeting, a practice session or a celeb opportunity.

"He could run for president, right?" Eliot Teltscher of the U.S. team asked Andreas Maurer, Becker's doubles partner, at the draw.

"Much bigger," replied Maurer.

When Becker wasn't overpowering Teltscher and Aaron Krickstein (who were in Hamburg because John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors refused to sign a code of conduct required by the sponsor of the U.S. team) in six routine sets to open and close the tie, or being broken by Ken Flach and Robert Seguso while serving for the doubles match on Saturday, the Boomer was desperately trying to include his teammates in the media festival. For instance, little Hansjörg Schwaier, who upset Krickstein 2-6, 6-1, 2-6, 6-1, 8-6 to give West Germany a 2-0 lead, was given short shrift until Becker made himself scarce. And following the doubles, Becker gently scolded the press: "Ask him [Maurer] questions."

Seventeen. The more he shows his countrified, open and effervescent face in public, the more it seems that Becker was born either with a racket in his paws or a microphone in his teeth. "You must understand this about the guy," said Flach. "Boris was never young."

Then, too, he always has been well coached, both on and off the court. Breskvar begat Günther Bosch, a native of Romania who was the German national junior coach, who begat his boyhood friend and tennis mate, Ion Tiriac. Now Bosch handles the courtside duties, while Boom Boom's private time is consumed by Doom Doom, the hovering, brooding Tiriac, a Svengalian sort who issues forth marvelous quotes and billowing cigarette smoke in equal measure.

In Hamburg, Tiriac produced something unique, a personal press kit labeled ION TIRIAC PRESENTS...BORIS BECKER, which was autographed by both men. Tiriac refers to his infant charge as mister, as in, "The moment Wimbledon end, I tell Mr. Becker, 'Your life is over; you are born again with me.' " A week later, after paying lip service to Monte Carlo and Leimen, Tiriac had Mr. Becker slaving away on his footwork and doing endurance exercises in the Swiss Alps. "Sloppy legs," Tiriac says. "Mr. Becker move like elephant."

Right out of the box, though, post-Wimbledon, Becker amplified his saga by saving five match points en route to beating the two-time NCAA champion, Michael Pernfors, at the U.S. Clay Courts in Indianapolis. Ivan Lendl ultimately had to retreat 20 feet behind the baseline to contain Boom Boom's serve and defeat him in the semifinals. The uproar at Indy, however, concerned Guillermo Vilas's announcement that he "owned half of Becker. Tiriac long has been said to own half of Vilas, but what Vilas actually has is a financial involvement in Tiriac's management company. Still, were Becker and Vilas to play, as they could have in Indy, Vilas would have an obvious conflict of interest on his hands. He has said he would go all out against Becker just as he would against any other opponent.

"Tiriac discussed no guarantees, no fixed sums," says Karl-Heinz of the family deal. "We will not get into numbers, but he did not obligate us to more than a logical percentage. That is what was impressive. We are overjoyed at the arrangement and grateful especially that Tiriac plays the bogeyman to supply protection to our son."

Moreover, the underground rumor that Tiriac is demanding thousands for a simple interview with the youngster is scurrilous to the max, according to the mustachioed entrepreneur. "We are doing no 'exclusives' but 'specials' with Mr. Becker," says Tiriac. "The media—especially in Germany—have more money than General Motors. And the money paid by the media for the specials will go to charity." Right.

Becker's appearance in Hamburg was his first real test in front of the home folks. The media responded in kind, and Becker fieber broke out everywhere. It wasn't enough that in July, a Hamburg newspaper, Bild, did a nine-part series—fee: more than 100,000 German marks, none of it to charity—on everything from what Becker listens to on his omnipresent earphones (the Police singing Roxanne) to which one of Mama Elvira's recipes was his favorite (paprikas stuffed with meat over rice and under tomato sauce). Each day of the tie Becker was plastered all over the newsstands under banner headlines: W√ñRNER [the West German defense minister] SAYS BORIS MUST GO INTO ARMY...BORIS'S RACKET: IT GETS STRUNG THREE TIMES A DAY...ROBERT BLANCO [a black pop singer] SAYS BORIS IS THE GREATEST...STEAK FORBIDDEN—BORIS EATS NOODLES.

The day before the tie, Bild ran pictures of Becker receiving a massage, stretching, getting fitted for new shoes, browsing in a record store and wolfing down a chefs salad. What, no noodles? On another day a spread on FANS, FLAGS AND HAIRCUTS at the matches featured photographs of boys of all ages wearing ill-kept half-bowls of blond bangs. Becker wallowed in the attention. West German coach Nikki Pilic, the impetus for the 1973 Wimbledon boycott, had to drag him out of parties and hotel lobbies and tear him away from autograph hunters, so obliging was Boom Boom to the public. "I felt just like the Pope," Becker had said of his homecoming celebration after Wimbledon, when he addressed the townspeople from the balcony of the Rathaus. Now he was Bruce Springsteen.

"What is most important," said Pilic, "is that this is a good boy who loves tennis. He knows he's good, but he doesn't think he's special. There is unbelievable pressure on him in Germany, and I don't know how he could be so enthusiastic. Even in his room, he is practicing his stroke. This boy lives to play the game."

And how he plays it. Bill Jacobson of Compu Tennis has readouts on a dozen Becker matches. His numbers confirm that Boom Boom already possesses weapons at the Borg-McEnroe-Connors level. Arthur Ashe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, speaks of Becker's variety of shots, intimidation and size (6'2", 175 pounds). "There never has been a tennis prodigy this big," says Ashe. "Becker's like a high school junior in the NBA. He isn't even all there yet, and he scares the hell out of guys with his power. You hate to play against somebody who's not only good but unpredictable. The guy hits the ball harder than anyone and yet keeps it in play all day. Plus you never know exactly what he's going to do with it."

Becker even walks like a champion. And thinks like one. "I thought it would be a tougher fight," he said after riddling Teltscher 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 despite converting fewer than 50% of his first serves. "Like maybe four sets."

Becker has become so good so fast that the major surprise of the weekend was not his carrying the outclassed Maurer through five sets but his inability to hold serve with the tie on his racket. "We thought it was over," said Seguso after the Americans' thrilling 6-2, 6-8, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 victory. Don't think that Becker got nervous, either. Boom Boom may not have a nerve in his pink Teutonic body.

On his father's 50th birthday in March, Boris telephoned home from Brussels with congratulations. That night at the party Karl-Heinz heard a knock on the door. When he opened it, there was Boris. He pulled the same trick on his mother, flying home from London in June to sing Happy Birthday at the apartment house in Leimen. The next morning Karl-Heinz got up at six to drive his son to another airport for another trip to another city and another tournament.

The Beckers cried that day. Herr Becker even cried in telling the story. Doubtless there will be tears at the next parting, as well. Seventeen. The Beckers of Leimen may have lost a son, but they have gained a hero for the ages.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBecker was on the ball in Hamburg—even when he had to get down or go up to get it. PHOTORUSS ADAMS[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSRUSS ADAMSThe American combo of Teltscher (above) and Krickstein, both of whom got beat in straight sets by Becker, showed that they had feet of clay. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERAfter Schwaier (right) won on Friday, Flach (below, left) and Seguso kept the U.S. alive. TWO PHOTOSRUSS ADAMSBoris tunes in to "Roxanne," Tiriac (above, dark glasses) and Bosch (next to Tiriac).