WOES OF THE WUNDERKIND

For Boris Becker, 20 but aging fast, the Masters was a disappointing finale to a difficult year
December 14, 1987

At the Nabisco masters in Madison Square Garden, Ivan Lendl won again. Same guy as last year and the year before that. This time he beat Mats Wilander in Monday night's final. Enough, already, about Lendl.

Let's consider the stranger case of Boris Becker, who, after struggling to beat an ailing 35-year-old Jimmy Connors, was bounced from the round-robin competition by Lendl and last-minute qualifier Brad Gilbert. It seems that it was only yesterday that Becker was the youngster with charm, charisma, bruised knees and a booming game who would deliver us from Lendl and a host of somnambular Swedes. Ah, but gaze upon him now. His carrot-topped head is hanging. The bloom is off his rosy cheeks. No smile is on his lips. At 20, Becker looks world-weary.

His Gloomy Gus mentor, Ion Tiriac, admits as much. "He's older, and he takes tennis more as an adult," says Tiriac. "He takes it more as his mètier—I don't know how to translate that exactly—than as his game."

"He's not enjoying it anymore," said Gilbert, after beating Becker for the third time this year. "He once played on pure emotion, but now he's feeling pressure, and he's not enjoying it."

So, what happened? Well, 1987 happened:

•In January, Becker was fined $2,000 when he broke three rackets in anger and spat water at an umpire while losing to Wally Masur in the Australian Open. Two days later he fired his longtime coach, Günther Bosch.

•In February he competed for the first time without a coach and won a tournament in California. Once the most public of superstars, Becker seemed changed. During the tournament, he holed up with his girlfriend of eight months, Bènèdicte Courtin of Monte Carlo, in a butler-serviced $2,600-a-night villa. The German press began to question his high living.

•In June, Becker won Queens, a Wimbledon tune-up. It would be his last tournament victory of the year. According to someone close to his small entourage, "The whole camp, including Boris, was absolutely sure he'd win Wimbledon again." But the two-time defending champ proceeded to make Peter Doohan briefly famous by losing to him in the second round. Boris-bashing became the rage in West Germany. "When the press turned so sour, that really hurt," says the insider. "There was hope that Steffi Graf would take some of the pressure off back home, but when she was so successful, it actually made it worse."

•In early summer, Bosch, who had begun writing columns for a West German newspaper, started publicly second-guessing Becker's training, tactics, lifestyle—everything but his hair color. Bosch has followed Becker around the world. He was at the Masters working as a commentator for West German television. Becker has always taken his role as a national hero very seriously. Now his pedestal was being eroded by forces beyond his control.

•In July, Becker survived harrowing Davis Cup matches against John McEnroe and Tim Mayotte in Hartford, Conn. Says the insider, "The feeling in camp was that if he lost those, he would be just crucified at home."

•In October, he got into a brouhaha over apartheid that was hardly his doing. Because Becker had been a member of a West German junior team that played in South Africa in 1984, when he was 16, Swedish TV technicians protested his appearance in the Stockholm Open. Then UNICEF, which was employing him as a goodwill ambassador, demanded he sign a pledge vowing not to play in South Africa again. Becker, who as a pro has refused to set foot in South Africa, said he didn't answer ultimatums. UNICEF canned him.

•In late autumn a nagging knee injury worsened. Displaying his famous grit, Becker offered no excuses. "Every man in this profession is sometimes injured or sometimes sick," he said. Last week he finally confirmed that he has "a kind of tendinitis in my left knee" and would start therapy. But he had dropped from second to fifth in the world.

Thus it was a dour Becker who came to New York. Consider this McEnroe-like talk from him last week: "Sometimes you listen to too many voices, and that makes you think too much, and that makes you confused too much. You just have to listen to yourself, because once you're on the court, you are alone."

It has been as bad as all that, has it? Quite. When asked what 1987 has taught him, Becker answered, "That I only have three friends, and they are the members of my family." He said he isn't allowed to act his age "because that would be a weakness, and you can't have weaknesses in this sport." He also alluded to the roller-coaster treatment he has received from the media: "If someone wins, you shouldn't put him a couple of steps from God. And if he loses, you shouldn't put him close to the devil."

Woe is Boris, and Camp Becker realizes this. "Everything weighs down," says Tiriac. "Points, cents, dollars, tournaments, media, continents, Grand Prix—all this, and it goes into the computer, and it weighs upon him."

Becker wants to get out from under it. He hopes part of the solution will be Bob Brett, who two weeks ago signed a one-year contract to coach Becker. Brett, 34, was a fair-to-not-quite-middling Aussie player and has developed a reputation as an affable but hard-driving taskmaster. John Lloyd, who underwent Brett's strenuous regimen a couple of years ago, enjoyed a brief rekindling of his career. "He can motivate me very well. He's training me well," says Becker. "I know I am quite a good player. You cannot lose it all. It's just a question of working, working."

Brett will make Becker work. "Boris wants to bear down, and I help him with that," he says. A Brettian workout, he adds, "covers all of strength, conditioning, cardiovascular and agility." Brett will help Becker with mechanics, too. He refuses to cite weaknesses but says, "I have a list of areas to be used as weapons and a list to be worked on."

The second list should include the word patience. Lack of it isn't a problem on Wimbledon's slick grass, but on slower surfaces, Becker often tries to end points too quickly. At the Masters he was flailing his ground strokes whenever a point extended beyond four or five exchanges. Against Gilbert, a wily counterpuncher, Becker became frustrated in the third set, and his topspin forehands were landing three feet behind the baseline. After the match, Rod Laver told Tiriac, "Tell him he doesn't have to hit every ball 200 miles an hour."

Becker's serve is still huge, and his talent is intact, so his game is curable. But what of his melancholy? Will he enjoy playing again? One hopes so, because Becker remains one of the nicest of world-class athletes. He has time and autographs for everyone, even if he no longer delivers the latter with a wink and a smile. Unlike Tiriac, he makes a poor Gloomy Gus.

Like Bosch, Becker has a regular column in the European press. It's carried by some 50 newspapers. In his most recent piece he wistfully wrote, "Every year at Christmastime I go away with my family for a quiet vacation. This year we are going to a little Italian village. I'm looking forward to it. It's one thing that being a professional has not taken away from me."

Merry Christmas, Boris. Happier New Year.

PHOTORUSS ADAMSBosch has gone from coaching Becker to critiquing him. PHOTOMANNY MILLANImpatience left Becker agonizing over shots that didn't stay in. PHOTORUSS ADAMSGilbert, who's 3-0 against Becker in 1987, handed him one of his two losses last week.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)