He is of another time, when tennis players had grace, manners and the big serve; when they read books, ordered from Italian menus in Italian, and dressed in long pants on the court and elegant cravats off it; when they cared about the universe, the game, the opponent; when they knew how to lose. Especially that: knew how to lose. The latter-day Swedes, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander, were devastated by losing. Of the Americans, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang are trying to figure it out; Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe never did. Ivan Lendl, from the distant, peculiar land of Machine-ovakia, may not know the difference. It is very simple, really. All the world—including the vast majority of the tennis world—roots for Boris Becker to win, precisely because he loses so well.
Not that there are many occasions for this. Already a legend on the lawns, he is an infant Arthur who, with his mighty Excalibur, is now expected to dominate Wimbledon in the same manner as his predecessor BB; were it not for upset losses in the 1988 and '90 finals to Stefan Edberg, Becker would have won five All England championships in the last six summers, which would have compared with the great Borg's five in a row.
In real life Becker, 22 years, nine months old, is still a mere towheaded na‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤f who has trouble understanding fiber count, politics and girlfriends—hey, dude, welcome to Grown-upsville. But in the simultaneously insular and global realm over which he presides, Becker is nevertheless "our spokesman, our role model, the guy tennis players want to represent tennis," says Aaron Krickstein, 23 years, zero months.
It isn't just the familiar victory dives on the All England Club turf or the personal flair and politesse or even the powerful smashes and dramatic comebacks and important titles that have made Becker tennis's only significant good witch of the last decade. Lord knows the sport has had a handful of the other kind. Becker has been Arnold Palmer to a bunch of Rowdy Roddy Pipers for nigh unto half a dozen seasons now. For the true essence of Becker, the boy king...the new German...the sportsman...the man...it is necessary to observe him in all the refreshing glory of defeat. Where, as another peer, Sweden's Jonas Svensson, says, "Boris shows who he really is."
August 26, 1990
The fact is, nobody but nobody in public life loses better than Boris Becker.
•Key Biscayne. Last March, in the midst of a personal crisis with his companion at the time, Karen Schultz, Becker suffered a shocking 7-6, 6-1 defeat at the hands of a Frenchman named Jean Fleurian in the third round of the Lipton International Players Championship. What was more shocking—considering that seconds after an early loss most of tennis's megastars hop into the first Testarossa out of town—Becker stayed on at the 10-day tournament to fulfill his commitment to play doubles with Cassio Motta of Brazil.
•Monaco. At the Monte Carlo Open in April, during a close quarterfinal match between Becker and the Spanish clay-court specialist Emilio Sànchez, the Spaniard fell to the dirt, clutching his ankle. Becker immediately hurdled the net, rushed to his fallen opponent, then fetched him some water. After play resumed, Sànchez made a remarkable recovery to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-6.
Becker's essential humanity was in this case noteworthy, because Sànchez is not one of the most popular players on the tour. His coach, Pato Alvarez, is a notorious trickster, and Sànchez has been known to—ah, shall we say—emote. "It is different playing Emilio," says the Swiss player Jakob Hlasek, one of Becker's best friends on the tour. "You would never know if he really twisted his ankle, and so you wouldn't care. But Boris is so much above all these petty things; Emilio faking it wouldn't occur to him. The thing is, because Boris is Boris, Emilio would never think to do such a thing to him."
•Hamburg. In May, Becker continued his slow progress on red clay by reaching the final of the German Open, where he was summarily dismissed by Spain's Juan Aguilera 6-1, 6-0, 7-6. Aguilera had not won a significant tournament in six years, and at the trophy presentation Becker bolted from the sideline to give him a hug and whisper sweet congratulations in his ear.
•Düsseldorf. Whoops. At the World Team Cup matches in May, after his West German team had been eliminated, Becker obviously went through the (mostly slow) motions in a meaningless 6-2, 6-1 loss to Spain's Jordi Arrese, during which the crowd at the Rochusclub whistled down its countryman. "They have short memories," said an angry Becker. "Those VIPs are only interested in results, not tennis." For most players there are four Grand Slam tournaments. "But Boris has six-plus," says Hlasek. "The actual four plus Hamburg, Düsseldorf and every other time he plays in Germany. The pressure is unbelievable."
•Paris. After his crushing upset by the Yugoslav Goran Ivanisevic in the first round of the French Open, an honest Slam event that Becker honestly felt he could win, he entered the press room and praised everybody from the winner to the media translator to the host country so effusively that the room had to be sprayed for charm bugs. Among Becker's bons mots were:
"It isn't luck when the guy serves me off the court."
"I was feeling good. I had the advantage of rest."
"I guess I am now a history person again." (Becker and Edberg, who also lost in the first round, were the first one-two seeds ever to be eliminated in the opening round of a Grand Slam tournament. Becker's quote was reported worldwide as "I'm in the history books again," but Becker never, ever speaks in clichès.)
"I wanted to play well on the terre battue." (A few crumbs about red clay for the locals.)
"This is what a Grand Slam is all about." (Some crumbs for the baseball writers in the group. Well, O.K., he almost never, ever speaks in clichès.)
Becker was asked if public interest and attendance at the tournament would be affected by his and Edberg's losses. "The French Open has so much history; it is much bigger than any players," he said. "It is just, sadly, impossible for me to play my best in the first round."
Why? Becker was asked.
"One second, please," he said. "The girl must have time to translate that [into French]."
And you thought Warren Beatty oozed smooth?
•London. Following his stunning defeat, from the winning position of 3-1 in the fifth set of the final on his "home court" at Wimbledon, Becker actually clambered over the net to give his conqueror, Edberg, a heartfelt embrace. The British press immediately proclaimed a new era in tennis sportsmanship, starkly contrasting Becker's reaction to defeat with the response of that day's other dethroned champion, Argentina's weeping, whining World Cupper, Diego Maradona. "Why such feelings for Stefan?" said Becker. "Because we both have been here before. Both sides."
The mellifluous tones of Becker's post-match concerti can be traced directly to Wimbledon '87, when, as defending back-to-back champion, Becker was rudely knocked off in the second round by Peter Doohan, an obscure Aussie from the University of Arkansas who was staying at a London YMCA. It wasn't Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson; it was Kirk Douglas.
At the time Becker was between coaches. He was also fighting with his business manager, Ion Tiriac, over Becker's relationship with Bènèdicte Courtin, whom Tiriac considered a distraction from tennis. As the London tabloids rejoiced in headlines such as BONKED OUT: TOO MUCH SEX BEATS BORIS, Tiriac sent Mile. Courtin home to Monaco.
Following his defeat by Doohan, as the sky began to fall on the All England Club, Becker uttered these immortal words: "I didn't lose a war. Nobody died. Basically, I just lost a tennis match." And that was that.
In reality, it took the 19-year-old several weeks to get over the experience. "It was a milestone...unnatural," he says. "But it wasn't the tennis that bothered me. There were such big changes going on in my life that I didn't care if I won or lost on the court. I didn't like what I represented...the rich and famous. The German 'patriot.' That wasn't me. I wanted to change my image. I was confused, and that was the real defeat."
The translation of all of this might be: Girl Trouble. Which would be ironic, because it was always rumored that Tiriac himself had arranged the Becker-Courtin liaison. The daughter of Monaco's chief of police for foreign residents, Courtin was three years older than Becker and, having split from a co-owner of the Lotus Formula One racing team, she was a generation more sophisticated. Courtin "met" Becker at Tiriac's doctor's office. She lingered around Becker's practice sessions long enough to do running exercises with him. Then she arrived in London for the big show. Of the story that Tiriac fixed up the romance, Becker now says, "Ridiculous."
And Tiriac? "I shall comment only this," says Count Dracula. "Better for Boris to have girlfriends than boyfriends."
Regardless, Becker took the following year's loss to Edberg in the Wimbledon final much harder. "Losing a final is the worst; it's like you never won the six other matches, all is gone, you lost the whole tournament on the last day," he says. But by that time he had come to trust in his positive philosophy. "I figured out not to blame myself for any losses," he says. "On that day I lose, I just realize the other guy was better. I go on. I'll get him next time. I think one of my strengths is I never get caught up in the hype of how good I am supposed to be. I know I have to work hard to be as good as some others. Only when I won the U.S. Open last year did I know. It was the first major tournament I'd won off the grass. It confirmed for me that I was a real tennis player. I knew I was the best in the world...that year." The International Tennis Federation declared Becker, who also led West Germany to victory in the Davis Cup in December, world champion for 1989.
Becker wasn't always so gracious on the short end. As a kid back in Leimen, a tiny cement-mixing town near Heidelberg, just above West Germany's Black Forest, he experienced the usual crying jags and hurled the normal complement of rackets when he lost. He was a kid without many friends, a loner who appreciated solitude; as the Germans say, an Einzelg‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünger. Between the ages of nine and 12, he was not among the best boys on the courts, so he had to hit with the girls, one of whom was a skinny little waif from nearby Bruhl named Graf. "One day, I remember it was a Saturday afternoon, I beat Steffi four sets, all ones," says Becker. "You know, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. Whew. I never had to play her again. Steffi had enough."
Becker's strong foundation included the harsh discipline of the youth programs in Leimen conducted by his earliest coach, Boris Breskvar, and the balanced priorities of his family at home. Once, little Boris, at 14, got so crazed with emotion—"I used to misbehave...right up to the outer limits," he says—that his father, Karl-Heinz, slapped him across the face. Following another setback on the court, Becker remembers his father, an architect and a former local water-polo star, telling him, "Look, it's just a tennis match. Nobody else cares. Be happy outside the tennis court. That is what matters."
Günther Bosch, the coach who took Becker from Leimen through two Wimbledon triumphs, was alternately a soft driver and a constricting chaperon. Even after Becker's first Wimbledon victory, Bosch would order him to dress in a coat and tie and have dinner with him and Mrs. Bosch in lieu of going out with other teenagers. "Bosch wanted to get closer just as I was growing up and didn't want close," says Becker. "Teaching-wise, he did as much as he could. I needed more."
Their split in January 1987 was bitter, and tension remains today; the two men barely speak. "There is no relationship," says Becker, coldly. "Not a good one, not bad. Just nothing." The few negative vibes about Becker that have emanated from the tennis community came from Bosch following the breakup. According to Becker, the two of them had agreed to part after the '87 Australian Open. When Becker lost a stunner to Wally Masur of Australia in that tournament, Bosch announced the parting "as if he was leaving me," says Becker. "We agreed not to discuss publicly the reasons, and then he goes in the next room and talks to the press for three hours about the inside stuff. I still feel he betrayed me."
Recently in his commentary for German newspapers and TV, Bosch has complimented Becker, "even about my worst matches," says the champ. "I know it is his way of apologizing. It just confirms that everything he said following the split was unfair. I accept his situation, but it doesn't mean we'll sit down for a couple of dinners anytime soon."
Tiriac, the brilliant, glowering mentor to the likes of Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas, taught Becker all the ropes he had learned over a lifetime spent traversing the world, entertaining the media, dealing in myriad foreign tongues, snookering officials, tournament directors and agents and generally surviving the tennis grind. After the split with Bosch, Tiriac also became Becker's interim coach, but when it came time for Tiriac to turn over the coaching to someone else, he was not sure where to turn. His idea of providing Becker with a glamorous name—Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Marty Riessen were candidates—did not go over with the champion. Instead, in November '87, Becker announced his own choice: a slight, unknown Australian named Bob Brett, the coach of some of Becker's friends on the tour, and a quiet, likable chap with whom Becker remembered playing the first round of golf in his life one day in Melbourne.
"The first thing I wanted from a new coach was that he not try to be my father," says Becker. Voilà. Brett, age 37, despite being a protègè of the crotchety old Australian taskmaster Harry Hopman, has provided Becker with a looser atmosphere, a warmer feel. "We share the same interests until about 10 p.m.," says Becker. "Then I like to go out." Brett, a marathon runner, goes to bed.
At the upper levels of the game, of course, there is little actual coaching to be done. Especially with Becker, who, for a fast-court, net-rushing aficionado, plays mind contests as readily as anybody. Bosch used to hold forth with the press for hours after Becker's matches; Brett gives no interviews and even keeps his own counsel as to Becker's training methods and strategy. "It's like a doctor-patient thing to me," says Brett.
Not that Becker, as cerebral a slugger as tennis has seen since Don Budge and Ellsworth Vines in the '30s, needs much help. Tiriac, who never controlled Becker as he did Nastase, Vilas and others, says, "This guy never yet realize that even [President] Bush has advisers."
"But Bush is doing something important," says Becker, laughing. "I'll take advice. Just not every week. Look, I know Ion thinks all I should do is serve and volley. That I don't isolate on tennis, that I don't want to beat a guy badly enough, that I take losing too easily. That's just how I am. All I know is, since I have this approach the last three years, it's got mc the championship of the world.
"At this stage, playing the top guys, it isn't so much tennis, anyway. It's nerves, brain, heart," says Becker. "In order to lift myself for the Grand Slams, the tournament finals, the Davis Cup, I have to have balance in the rest of my life. If I'm happy and content off the court it helps my game. In Key Biscayne, look, I am unhappy. I lose to Fleurian. Three days later, I break up with Karen. You think there is a connection? At Wimbledon in '87, Bènèdicte leaves. Doohan arrives. What do you think? Is it related? It is much more important to win in life than in tennis. That will stay longer with me."
It is instructive to remember that, having left home at the age of 16 to train and live with Tiriac in the bejeweled wilderness of Monaco, this fuzz-cheeked small-town kid, in searching for friendship, roots and life's ultimate meaning, has routinely fallen into the arms of older women. Becker's first close female friend on the tennis tour was Susan Mascarin, a gorgeous young woman from Grosse Pointe, Mich., who herself was at one time the world junior girls' champion. Three years Becker's senior, Mascarin found out exactly what real celebrity is when, in October of '85, after only a few weeks of being courted by Becker, she arrived at a women's tournament in Filderstadt, West Germany, and found pictures of herself plastered all over the front pages.
Evidence suggests that Courtin, the Monegasque homegirl who took up with Becker in 1986, was something of a high-society butterfly, and that could not go over well for too long with Becker. "Sure, I have met all the Monaco royalty," he says. "I think I have met every single person in Monte Carlo. But I do not go out much there. Few Monegasques do. The high rollers in the clubs of Monaco are not from Monaco. Luckily, my profession takes me away from Monte Carlo."
And so along came Schultz, the daughter of a teacher in a middle-class neighborhood of Hamburg. She first dated Becker when she worked as a hostess at the 1988 German Open in her hometown. One story has it that their initial meeting took place only because Schultz, originally a pressroom attendant, had refused to empty all the ashtrays that were cluttering up the journalists' working quarters. Transferred to the sanctity of the players' lounge, Schultz smelled no tobacco and, sure enough, soon heard violins.
The romance burned for two years, and Becker even purchased a large apartment overlooking a lake in Hamburg. But Schultz, a language student who favored the Sinead O'Connor crewcut look, tired of the tennis tour and became just another ex. KAREN WANTED BABY, the German press recently wailed, but Becker rejects that notion. "Karen wanted her own personal life," he says.
Ever the discreet swain, Becker did a nifty tap dance on the perplexed heads of the international media on the final day of Wimbledon last month, after who should appear in his Centre Court guest box but the glamorous Olympic skater, Katarina Witt, age 24. Later, hovering photographers would catch Witt knocking at the front door of Becker's rented house in the village of Wimbledon. She was not there to exchange her East German fortune for deutsche marks, either. A limousine with suitcases at the ready waited nearby. Subsequently, the pair dashed out together. Were they going to a symposium on reunification at the West German embassy? Where was Maury Povich when we needed him?
"Do I know her?" Becker repeated a question during the Katarina Watch. He had a marvelous glint in his eyes. "I have seen her skating."
"The older women?" says Hlasek. "When you win Wimbledon at 17, who're you going to talk to, 15-year-olds?"
"I had difficulty understanding a lot of the things I had to go through over the last five years," Becker says. "Maybe I felt older girls would help me understand." He laughs. "Also, I guess I thought I could last longer than a month with an older girl.
"I want a girlfriend who has her own life—not just somebody to hang around tournaments. But it's very difficult to be always Number 2 in. a relationship. I wouldn't advise any girl to be my girlfriend. It's not an easy life. Of course, there are some good things about it...."
For instance, a girl might get to live on a few continents. And those she missed, her beau could buy. If Becker is not one of the richest athletes on the planet, we're in a different solar system. Not that anyone would notice his wealth, what with the young champion shunning chauffeurs to walk around in his rain cap, like Oliver Twist, whom Becker most resembles in overall accessories. Recently, by mutual agreement, Becker and West Germany's Deutschebank allowed his endorsement contract to expire. "I just don't relate to a bank," Becker says. "In the learning process, you find out these things in life."
Echoes. His U.S. Open victory "has something to do with learning about life," Becker said last September. "You go out there and give it your best shot. That's all you can do.... That's why my spirit is so good. I know if I lose it's not the end of the world. It depends on how I lose."
Brad Gilbert, the junk-balling Californian who has had some success against Becker on the court, says, "I think he's lying about his age. I think Boris is 35."
Ken Flach, the American doubles specialist, says, "Boris has always acted like he wanted to be your friend. And I think he does. Oh, we're all gladiators out here, and Boris will nail those winners and give you that stare and that stomp. He's Boris the Lionhearted. But he's really still the guy he looked like when he first came on tour: Opie, from Andy Griffith's Mayberry. And that's genuine."
Svensson says, "All you have to do is check the body language around the locker room. Boris just carries himself like the champion."
"I think it's fair to say this guy has all the qualities to be the best Number One the tennis tour has had," says Weller Evans, the ATP director of operations. "Whenever Boris falls short—when he says something not quite right in a press conference or doesn't play hard enough or fails in a comeback or loses a Grand Slam title—the expectations are so high that we all feel down. Tennis just wants so bad for the guy to be it."
Which, if nothing else, separates Becker from just about every other player alive. Lendl used to lie down and absolutely expire in huge matches. He once refused to play the most important tennis tournament in the world because grass, he said, "makes me sneeze a lot." (The same week he showed up to play in the pro-am of the Westchester [N.Y.] Classic golf tournament.) Agassi, Little Punk Pink, still quits on occasion, blatantly hot-dogs at the expense of opponents and recently insulted the president of the ITF, Philippe Chatrier, whom Agassi called a "bozo." McEnroe's tedious brat act is indelibly imprinted on the public image of the game as firmly as is his talent; the second time he played Becker, at Stratum Mountain, Vt., in August of 1986, McEnroe shouted "——-you" and "Eat——-" at him and had the unmitigated gall to say, "It bothers me [that Becker] won Wimbledon.... He hasn't really said anything about anything and supposedly he is an interesting person." And then these marvelous fellows wonder why Becker is applauded and considered a grand champion and they, for all their titles and trophies, are not.
At a meeting of the Top 10 players last fall, the subject of the Grand Slam Cup held the floor. This is the stupidly extravagant $6 million, 16-man exhibition the ITF came up with for next December in Munich, West Germany, in an attempt to overshadow the $2 million ATP Tour World Championships three weeks earlier in Frankfurt. "It doesn't fit," Becker told the gathering. "It's terrible overexposure in Germany. It's embarrassing for the game."
"Two guys still swore they'd play," Becker said recently. "Seven said they agreed with me and that they wouldn't play. But I told them, 'A lot of grass is going to grow between now and then, and you might need a couple of bucks.' And I bet only three guys in the room were honest. Me and Lendl and Gilbert. Yeah, those two will play that thing for sure."
Becker discusses his fellow capitalistionaires with a smile, without rancor. The waiter at San Lorenzo Fuoriporta, a trendy bistro located in the village of Wimbledon, has served him a lunch of mozzarella with avocado, rice with mushrooms—"risotto funghi, grazie," Becker had requested, sounding as if his name were Borigi Beccherino—and fresh pineapple. But there is a problem. "This pineapple.... You have added the alcohol syrup.... I have to practice later.... Would you mind bringing the pineapple without alcohol?" Becker says this almost apologetically.
There are very few 22-year-old tennis players who care what a foreigner twice their age thinks about music and books, much less tennis. There are still fewer athletes who ask about a journalist's family, as if they actually cared whether their (traditionally considered) slimeball adversary were alive or dead. The number of internationally famous monster celebs who would behave kindly toward a waiter who has not only wasted their precious time but nearly destroyed their carefully honed bodies? Whoa! The one in all the world may have been sitting in San Lorenzo that very afternoon.
"McEnroe?" Becker says. "All in all, my relations with him are good. Much better in the last 12 months, when we have had a couple of dinners together, one-on-one. We came to the conclusion that we should have no problems. Aww, look. John always starts something if he is pissed off about losing. Then he insults you. I just told him, 'Don't insult me. I'm bigger than you.'
"With Lendl there are no problems either, honestly," Becker says. "We have a lot of respect for each other's achievements. We do a couple of things the other guy doesn't agree with. But I don't hate him at all—just sometimes when he beats me. It's impossible to have a relationship if you're Number One and Number 2. I don't want the guy to know my emotions or anything about me." (Now, Becker has dropped to No. 3. On August 13 Edberg officially took the top ranking, relegating Lendl to No. 2.)
"I have the least relationship with Edberg," Becker says. "But he doesn't relate to anybody, I don't think. Not even the Swedes. He just doesn't ever talk. I would run out of words at dinner with Edberg.
"And Agassi? I know what you have written about this guy," says Becker. "But I think he has character. All I can know is what I see on the court, and when I beat him close in the Davis Cup he was one way. When he beat me this year in Indian Wells [Calif.], he was the same way: sporting. He treated me well. Sure, I don't agree with his stance on Wimbledon or his pink shorts or his strange hair. He is not normal. But thank god for that. Thank god he is different. He's very good for tennis. He'd just be that much better if he came to Wimbledon."
Meanwhile, it seems so much longer than five years ago that Becker first won Wimbledon, as someone once said, "almost unconsciously." It was 1985. He was Boom Boom. The Boomer. Sweet 17. And never been kissed. Well, at least not by the younger girls. Becker still refers to it as "Wimbledon One." The earth rumbled from the shock until Becker confirmed his superiority on the greensward by defending his title the following summer. Wimbledon Two. A series of desultory losses in the majors followed—Gilbert and Darren Cahill beat him in the U.S. Open—but when he came from behind to whip Lendl in the '88 Masters in New York, taking the fifth-set tiebreaker with a harrowing let-cord winner, Becker seemed to turn a corner.
"Becker displays courage so often on the court that you can't help but feel that he makes his own breaks," Steve Flink of World Tennis magazine has written. Becker, he says, "is most like Laver in terms of coping with pressure.... He is now calmer and more purposeful on the court, wiser and more thoughtful off it...a great player with a growing awareness of himself and his potential.... Becker wears the emblem of champion more comfortably than any modern player."
And he's now taking his image into his own hands. Becker is in a constant process of growing up, both intellectually and emotionally, and as part of that process he has been weaning himself from Tiriac's school of careful public relations—not always to diplomatic effect. Last winter, in a controversial interview with reporter Arno Luik of the West German magazine Sports, Becker made some comments that resulted in banner headlines in his country rivaling WALL FALLS. He offended some West Germans—and whatever Monegasques might have picked up Sports—by saying he went to live in Monte Carlo "very simply because it's a tax haven." What stunned his countrymen even more were Becker's political opinions—a mishmash of wild-eyed radical ideas for someone who always had been presented as the ideal of patriotic, conservative youth.
Among other trek-into-quicksand observations, Becker said reunification was moving too fast, which in the view of many Germans, West and East, trivialized it. He said he had contributed regularly to Greenpeace and was bothered that so much government expenditure went to the weapons industry. He came out for the homeless, the unemployed and, in effect, all street people, including the intimidating "squatters" on Hamburg's Hafen Strasse, who, he intimated, were welcome to come see him play.
(Sure enough, at the German Open in May, some of Hamburg's college pranksters showed up at the gates of the Rothenbaum Club dressed as squatters and their hated antagonists, the fascist skinheads. Doing their best Duke University student-section impression, they chanted, "Boris? Where are our tickets?")
The result of all this was tumult near and far, not least in the Becker household, whose patriarch, Karl-Heinz, happens to be a staunch member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Party. "We'd discussed our differences for three years," Becker says of his father. "He wasn't one bit happy, but he knew this was coming someday."
Give the Boomer credit. At any time he could have backed down, said he was misquoted, blamed the furor on someone else. But he never did. The nation's media had a high time blasting Becker's chutzpah—as if a mere athlete had no right to an opinion. Bild of Hamburg, the biggest newspaper in West Germany, even suggested that Becker's thoughts were actually planted in his spinning, naive head by his live-in, Schultz—"Karen the Red," Bild dubbed her. As recently as last month members of Becker's brain trust were saying that their man was "trapped" by the interviewer.
"There was no trap," Becker says firmly. "I've had these concerns for a long time. I wanted to say these things, and I aimed them deliberately to come out when they did." (It was a two-part interview that received maximum exposure during the weeks of the Davis Cup final in Stuttgart and the Australian Open in Melbourne.)
"People who doubt me must think I live in some void," says Becker. "But I've talked to East Germans about [reunification]. There will be a difficult adjustment. The young ones want to speed up everything, the old ones are afraid. I spent 10 days with Karen's family—her mother and grandparents—in Leibsdorf, south of Berlin. This was just a week before the Wall came down. They agree with me.
"You want to know about backward? In America you speak of one-traffic-light towns. In Leibsdorf there are no traffic lights."
In the Sports interview Becker also spoke with new candor about some of his tennis opponents.
Asked which player made the most of his abilities, Becker said, "Tim Mayotte is a world champion. He can't do anything. He's terrible at the baseline. He made it to Number 10 only with a serve and volley and practice—without any talent."
How about Yannick Noah?
"Noah is also a Number One. Yannick moves beautifully, but this has nothing to do with tennis. If Noah were white and had short hair, he would be Number 50." Why, because white players are intimidated by blacks? "Maybe. [Noah] has a good serve but that's all. No player among the top 100 has such bad ground strokes.... He makes the most out of his limited means."
Asked about Lendl, Becker said, "He is very, very much wrapped up in himself, very egotistical.... Just imagine: For years you've been Number One, 2 or 3 and no one likes you.... During tournaments he is terrible. But in private he is O.K. He's simply much too grim, too much of a fanatic.... He doesn't play tennis; he works tennis....
"Quite honestly, if Lendl would beat me constantly because he took steroids, I would take them too. I would try to even out our chances; that's what this is all about."
Additionally, Becker said he told McEnroe before they played in the Paris Indoor tournament in early November, "If you start behaving like a beast during the match, I will turn into the bigger beast and I will destroy you."
(McEnroe seemed to call Becker's bluff when he made an issue of the nervous cough that wells up inside the West German at critical moments, both on and off the court. McEnroe imitated the cough during the match, and when Becker complained that he couldn't help it, McEnroe called back, "You've been coughing for three years. Are you ill?" The beastie boys' beastly match went 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 to—aagck, aagck—Becker.)
These comments, too, disappointed many of Becker's admirers. But some of his countrymen, at least, were sympathetic. The word some Germans used to define their young sportsman was this: unausgegoren—like some wines, not matured.
"Ever since I was labeled as a 'German hero' and a 'flag carrier' at the Davis Cup in Hartford"—when Becker ran around the court waving the West German colors after his team beat the U.S. in 1987—"I've been sick of people talking in my voice," he says. "I am not like that at all. I was only pissed off because the crowd waved the U.S. flag for three days. My own waving was misinterpreted. Look," Becker says, staring at the ceiling of San Lorenzo, mouthing the words first to get them right. "I'm no nationalist. I never wanted to represent the patriots. I have no problem being German, one way or the other. I'm not particularly proud of it. It's just there whether I like it or not."
If last winter's political bombshells weren't enough, Becker brought on another fusillade of criticism when he announced that he would not play Davis Cup for two-time defending champion West Germany in 1990 because he wanted "to concentrate on reaching Number One." In April the Cup holders were beaten by Argentina in Buenos Aires while Becker trained, according to one writer from Bild, "in the sand dunes and bars of Miami's Coconut Grove."
"The real reason I didn't play," says Becker, "is because Davis Cup has lost its meaning for West Germans. It's not about tennis anymore. It's all money and status and the show-off crowd. It's about being seen in the VIP tents. Tickets are so expensive, only the rich and famous can come. That's wrong. But they shouldn't be mad at me for not playing. It's just one less sponsor party [at which] they'll have to meet me. If people choose not to believe my words, maybe they'll believe my actions."
Don't insult me. I'm bigger than you.
To understand the impact in his homeland of anything Becker does or says, just imagine that every major American personality who has been mentioned in a column by Larry King—or been fortunate enough to even, say, meet Larry—suddenly perishes in an enormous vat splashing over with Perrier, sushi and Brie. Everyone, that is, except for five lucky celebs who dive to safety. That's about how many Germans there are of the sort Tiriac calls "makers, people who make life happen." This short list includes West German President Richard von Weizs‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ücker, former national soccer-team coach Franz Beckenbauer, TV variety-show host Thomas Gottschalk and, from beyond the broken Wall, the beauteous Witt. But of all of them, Becker is maker No. 1.
Conversely, the champion himself is known to have a complex about being considered "only" a tennis player; he feels he is not respected enough as a plain, solid, intelligent citizen. Becker still suffers from an ingenuous mind-set: He wants to be loved for his brain as well as his body.
"The trouble with Boris is he's too honest," says Helmut Sorge, a correspondent for the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. "He not only can't say no, he can't say 'I don't know.' The guy is a quick study—we say schlagfertig. He reacts very quickly off the cuff. But he's much better in short interviews than in a long, drawn-out dialogue, where he starts swimming in place. Boris wants so badly to be considered a Renaissance man, he waded into this minefield of political questions with very little ammunition or answers. He says he likes to read. Fine. Then he says he likes Goethe. But wait. Nobody reads Goethe, much less understands him. If Boris came out and acknowledged he's too tired when he comes back from tennis, he reads Goethe but just can't figure him out, everybody would love him for it. He'd seem much more human, back to normal."
But, alas, to some people Becker has gone to hell in a handbasket, shilling for the leftists, passing on the Davis Cup, feigning a taste for Goethe, dating big, big, big-time with the Ice Queen from the East—and denying himself a place in the nation's pantheon. But sich gedulden one second. West Germany's favorite bewildering son also has spent another summer of maturation, reaching still another Wimbledon final and preparing diligently to defend his title in the U.S. Open next week. That may very well be Flushing Meadow Two. And even the most objective nonaligned observer would agree that many more major titles are in store before little Leimen's big brave champion gets all the way back to normal again.