Boris Becker can't decide who he is these days. A wise philosopher-king? A cutting-edge sophisticate with a vaguely degenerate air? A gentle spiritual seeker? A reluctant German idol? Being a mere tennis player does not appear to be an option.
This is an article from the June 21, 1993 issue
On this particular afternoon Becker seems to have settled into the role of brooding coffee-house intellectual. He sheds a fashionably distressed suede jacket and removes a pair of round Joycean dark glasses. Becker is reclining in the lounge of a small, chic London hotel. Looking contemplative, he sips from a glass of Evian and quotes Goethe. Becker reveals that he is reading four books at once: a bit of Goethe, a little Confucius, a tome on homeopathic medicine and a biography of Jimi Hendrix.
One can't help but notice Becker's resemblance to a character in Siddhartha, a work by another of his favorite German authors, Hermann Hesse. Siddhartha is basically one fellow's torturous search for the meaning of life. He's rich, he's poor, he fasts, he gorges, he swears off women, he's a babe-magnet. And now, here in the hotel lounge, sits a brooding Becker, who's on a baffling journey of his own.
At 25, Becker has not won a Grand Slam title in two years and seems increasingly stultified by his philosophic ponderings. He arrived at Wimbledon, which starts on Monday, in the midst of a severe slump. Thus far in 1993 he has withdrawn from five events and failed to advance as far as the quarterfinals in six others. In his two most recent Grand Slam events, the Australian Open in January and the French Open last month, he lost in the first and second rounds, respectively. He has fired yet another coach, Günther Bresnick, his fourth in two years. Yet he insists that "after a lot of soul-searching." his current phase of ineffectual play will soon end.
Wimbledon, where he built his career and reputation with titles in 1985, '86 and '89, could mark the turning point. "This part of the book is ewer," Becker says "I'm going on to the next 2,500 pages. I believe the soul-searching I've done will help me a lot. I'm much clearer now or where I want to go and why."
On the other hand, this could be just another cul-de-sac in Becker's intellectual wanderings. Who can be sure? Becker is no ordinary tennis player. Even when his game is shockingly ordinary, his status as the most enigmatic figure in tennis today remains undiminished. His slumps have a compelling, outsized quality. Becker doesn't get smaller. He just gets paler. He confounds even those who have known him longest, like fellow German Steffi Graf, a childhood playmate. "It's difficult to say what's in his head," Graf says. "Tennis is not his main goal, I think."
This will be Becker's 10th Wimbledon. It is a startling fact. "I'm old," he says with a laugh. The statement is not so ridiculous. Winner of back-to-back Wimbledons by age 18, Becker feels pressured by the standard of excellence he set in his youth. "One thing I know is that the world will not allow me to just play tennis," he says. "It will not allow me to be No. 15 in the world. So I do it right or I don't do it at all."
Becker, who is currently ranked No. 4, has spent much of the past two years in the throes of an awkward public transition into adulthood. His enormous popularity in Germany has threatened to suffocate him, and he has writhed under the scrutiny of the press. "They want to know the why, where and how of everything," he says. "They give me a hard time because I live my own life. They want me to be 17. I tell them I can't pretend to be 17 anymore. I'm not Boris anymore. I'm Mr. Becker."
Becker has declared his independence in a variety of ways but most sensationally by recently posing nude with his fiancèe, Barbara Feltus, for the cover of the German magazine Stern. He and Feltus, who is a model, conceived of the cover as a protest against the frightening resurgence of racism and hate crimes in Germany. Feltus is black, the daughter of a former American GI. Public reaction in Germany to her relationship with Becker has been largely hostile, WHY NOT ONE OF US, BORIS? a headline screamed.
When Becker's parents saw the photo (which was taken by Feltus's father), they asked why he insisted on being nude. Becker told them, "I am more nude on a tennis court." He elaborates: "That was only a picture. But on a tennis court, when you are angry and afraid, people can look inside you. The TVs and the cameras want to get in your soul and your brain and your heart."
Becker, who keeps an apartment in Hamburg but spends part of the year in Monte Carlo for tax reasons, says he may leave the country for good. "I don't want to go," he says, "but the press leaves me almost no choice." He has also distanced himself from his homeland by refusing to play Davis Cup this year, repulsed by the events nationalism, which he feels is too intense. "There are wars on CNN," he says. "We don't need more."
Clearly this is a different man from the boy who won three Wimbledons playing with a headlong fury. "He has changed," says Graf. "But it's a normal evolution. When you grow up in small towns like we did, and then you travel the world, that changes you. That can be good—as long as you know where you came from and how you got here."
In 1987, when he suffered his first significant slump, reaching only one Grand Slam semifinal, Becker experienced a fall from grace in Germany that he's still trying to comprehend. In the preceding two years he had been voted West Germany's sportsman of the year, but in '87 the nation's press turned on him savagely, and he finished ninth in the voting. Günter Sanders, the president of the German Tennis Federation and a man who has known Becker from boyhood, watched him flounder. "He went from child to man all in one step," says Sanders. "He missed something in between."
But Becker's vow to recover from his current slump is not a capricious one: His '87 tailspin was followed by the best tennis of his career. That year Becker fired Günther Bosch, his coach since boyhood, and hired Bob Brett. In 1989 Becker not only won Wimbledon but also won the U.S. Open, reached the semifinals at Roland Garros and led Germany to the Davis Cup. In '91 he became No. 1.
Shortly after gaining the top ranking, Becker parted from Brett. Becker held the No. 1 spot for a mere 12 weeks and has never recovered it. "After '91 I was tired of tennis," says Becker. "I was tired of all the straining and the doing. I had all the success I wanted."
Becker's fatigue has been palpable. He carries his 6'3" frame with an arthritic stillness and displays the sickly mannerisms of an invalid, coughing incessantly and clearing his throat of phlegm. While he has had brief surges on the court—he finished last year with three titles and added two more early this year—he has been hampered by injuries, illness and constant coaching changes.
Becker acknowledges a basic ambivalence about being on tour. He seems to take pleasure in seeing how far he can fall before rising once again. His ranking dropped to No. 10 last year, his lowest since 1985, before he awoke in the fall to get seven wins over Top 10 players.
"I found out that tennis is a way of finding myself," he says. "Of finding the real Boris Becker. What happened to me at 17 was not normal. I've come more to terms with Boris Becker. I understand his strengths and weaknesses. I accept that I'm famous for the rest of my life, and I have fewer ups and downs than I did a couple of years ago. I'm more stable."
Perhaps, but it still galls him that his slump has allowed other players to gain confidence against him, even on his favorite surface, grass. Last year a little soda pop named Andre Agassi knocked him out of Wimbledon in the quarters. At the Stella Artois grass championships in London last week, countryman Michael Stich defeated him in straight sets. Stich is the man who beat Becker in the '91 Wimbledon final. The two are emphatically not friends. "Certainly Boris doesn't like a player who takes away from his cake," Sanders says. "Now there is another who has a big bite."
Clearly, Becker is not very coachable. Witness the legion of men he has hired and fired, and the way he tries to beat others at their own game, playing baseline tennis against baseliners as he did in the Wimbledon loss to Agassi. He's reluctant to heed the advice of those he pays to oversee his game. "You have to make him think something is his own idea," said Bresnik shortly before he was dismissed. "For two or three days he won't do it. Then one day maybe he'll try it."
Those who have worked or played with Becker are alternately astonished and exasperated by him. Stich won the Olympic doubles in Barcelona with Becker last summer only to feud with him for the rest of the year. "I hardly know the guy," Stich says. "I mean, he changes all the time."
Becker, who quit school and left home at 16 to play tennis, is, in many ways, self-educated. "I did it from scratch," he says, "I had to learn from my faults. I will make more mistakes. I will not make this year's mistakes again, but I will make new ones."
They will probably be as spectacular as his old ones, as Becker takes his usual pleasure in building obstacles only to knock them down again. "To find my limits, to see how far I can go is the good part, the unexpected," he says. "Am I still good enough to win a Grand Slam title, or do I have to be satisfied with No. 4? I don't know if it's so exciting to find the limit and realize you're a failure. But to tell you the truth, I don't know if it's so exciting to expect to win and do it all the time."