Broken Promise He was the philosopher king of tennis, a gutsy champion with a social conscience. But after a sex scandal and a messy divorce, can Boris Becker put the pieces back together?

May 27, 2001

The ferry swings into Miami's Government Cut, aiming for the
island. In a van parked on board, Boris Becker sits up in the
passenger seat, the front row for an almost unnerving blast of
postcard beauty: the buttery dying sunlight, the churning surf.
He sees none of it. He has lived through enough South Beach
springs to take such a vista for granted, and besides, he's
distracted. First, there's that young woman in the back of the
van, and yes, Becker is sure he knows why she is there.

Haven't months of headlines pronounced him Germany's most famous
satyr? Isn't everyone trying to soften him up? Becker takes great
pride in his ability to read all the angles, and he figures it's
no mistake that every time he goes on a photo session lately, the
photographer shows up with an attractive assistant/makeup
artist/gofer. A week ago, at a shoot in Europe, the photographer
brought a female assistant and two women with no apparent task.
Next time, they joked, we'll bring 10 girls to help you relax.
"As if that's all I'm interested in," Becker says.

Still, the makeup artist in the back of the van--who was brought
along only to apply makeup--is gorgeous, and the 15-minute ride
from Miami Beach to Fisher Island goes slowly. Becker twists
around to give the young woman his full attention. For a time, he
treats her every word as if it were dipped in gold. His heart
isn't quite in it, though. Becker trusts no one these days, and
the ferry is his most immediate reminder why.

He has been making this trip often lately. His sons,
seven-year-old Noah and one-year-old Elias, live in a luxury
apartment on Fisher Island with his ex-wife, Barbara, and
sometimes Becker spends the night there and wakes up like a ghost
in what was, only a few months ago, his home. Passing through
those rooms, he sees the mundane things--chairs, forks,
bedsheets--that he once could lay a hand on and say, Mine. He sees
Noah, growing fast. "This is the one loss I have," Becker says.
"The fact that I cannot go in the bedroom at night and sneak up
on him kills me sometimes. Just to be with him, hold him, smell
him...."

Instead, on this blustery March afternoon, Becker drifts. At 33,
the greatest male champion in German history spends most of his
time in the air or on the road, jetting from Munich to Majorca to
Miami, adding to his $100 million fortune, looking to seal the
deal that ignites the second act of his life. He looks drawn,
thinner than he used to be, and his famous self-confidence comes
and goes.

Talk in the van drifts to dating. Becker turns back in his seat.
Someone jokes that a man is better off getting a prostitute. As
the ferry chugs alongside Fisher Island, Becker stares at the
thick green lawns, the impeccable quiet hovering ever closer. He
nods. "It's more honest," he says. "Because at the end of the
day, you always pay."

He waves a weary hand, describing in that feeble arc all he knows
and doesn't know about love and women and his own stupidity. "You
see?" Becker says, pointing to the shore. "That's my old
apartment."

Once, Boris Becker was the most important man in tennis. Not just
because of his popularity, which reached astounding levels, in
and out of Germany, before he retired in 1999. And not just
because of his success, though he made huge amounts of money and
won plenty of tournaments. In fact, it's easy to discount
Becker's stature as one of the game's historic figures: His six
Grand Slam singles titles aren't half of Pete Sampras's total.
Still, at a time when pro tennis seems to be swimming in an
especially shallow pool, it's clear that the sport misses Becker
for reasons beyond gate appeal. Sex has become tennis's driving
force: The women sell cheesecake; the men rally under the banner
of NEW BALLS PLEASE. Looks trump talent. The tour has become the
world's richest high school.

Becker flew above all that. He never acted his age. In 1984 he
arrived at his first Wimbledon at age 16 and, after tearing ankle
ligaments in his third-round match against Bill Scanlon, insisted
on hobbling over to shake his opponent's hand before being
carried off on a stretcher. The next year he became the youngest
man to win at the All England Club, hurling his massive body at
the ball, shouldering past veteran Kevin Curren in the final as
if Curren had no right to step on the same grass. A few weeks
later, as his fame mushroomed and 200,000 German Kinder flocked
to play tennis, the new teen idol told TIME magazine that the
blind worship he saw in his fans' eyes had him worried. For the
first time, Becker said, he understood how Hitler had happened.

This, of course, was a dangerous thing for an athlete to say.
Becker risked alienating his public just as it was starting to
love him, but he didn't care; gossip and play-by-play bored him.
He wanted to engage the world beyond tennis, beyond the era's
preoccupation with McEnrovian bile, and his earnestness elevated
the conversation. "Those years--'85, '86, '87--Becker was the most
natural, crystal-clear youngster I ever saw," says Ion Tiriac,
Becker's former manager. "He didn't know how to lie, didn't need
to lie, didn't need to find excuses or hype, or cry when he was
losing. That's what made human beings around the world identify
with him."

On the court Becker would curse himself and bleed from the knees,
dive on the grass and scream. Off it, he provided a counterpoint
to the bombastic Germans seen in one World War II movie after
another. He was a philosopher king in shorts, complaining when
British newspapers headlined any of his wins as a BLITZKRIEG and
musing, after losing his Wimbledon crown at 19, "I didn't lose a
war. Nobody died." He proclaimed solidarity with Amnesty
International and with squatters in Hamburg, wore a Greenpeace
patch where other players sported sneaker logos. He had charm, an
outsized ego and, at times, real guts. In 1992, ignoring his
nation's euphoria over reunification, Becker refused to serve as
ambassador for Berlin's bid to host the 2000 Olympics, saying he
feared a triumphant Germany might stir its citizens' old
fantasies about a master race.

"He thinks about the big picture, which is very unusual these
days," says Billie Jean King. "He's thoughtful, and he cares. Of
his generation he was the only one. Tennis misses him."

However, as the white, straight, middle-class son of an architect
from Leimen, Becker lacked the authority of a King or an Arthur
Ashe. Yes, his parents had met in a displaced persons' camp after
the war, but he was a child of privilege who could never embody
his causes. Ivan Lendl dubbed Becker "the limousine radical," and
it was true. Becker had strong opinions but no struggle. He had
never really put himself on the line.

Then he fell in love. In the fall of 1991 Becker met Barbara
Feltus, a model and aspiring actress, the daughter of an
African-American serviceman and a white German woman. By that
time Becker, at 23, had achieved all a tennis player could ask
for: three Wimbledon titles, one U.S. and one Australian Open
championship (a second Australian crown would come in 1996), two
Davis Cup titles, a stint at No. 1. "She was spontaneous, very
lively," Boris says of Barbara. "I was moody, didn't know whether
I should continue tennis, and she brought sunshine into my life.
She was the complete opposite of how I was."

At a New Year's Eve party in Australia, Becker decided to go
public with the romance. Just before he and Barbara ventured
downstairs and danced together for all to see, he stood in a
hotel room and told her, "Tomorrow your life will be completely
different--for the rest of your life."

Barbara had no idea how bad it could be. Death threats poured in.
People shouted at tournaments that Barbara was a gold digger, a
"black witch." Becker, Germany's most famous man, adored for his
so-called Germanic blond looks and furious game, had betrayed
something deep. One headline wailed WHY, BORIS? WHY NOT ONE OF
US? Neither Boris nor Barbara flinched. Fifteen months later he
secreted a diamond ring in her whiskey sour and proposed. They
shocked Germans by posing nude for a photo on the cover of the
weekly magazine Stern. Becker threatened to leave Germany if the
racist rants didn't stop.

After they married in 1993 and Noah was born and their devotion
showed no sign of abating, a sea change occurred. By the mid-'90s
Boris and Barbara had risen to a high station in German society,
serving as liberal poster parents, "a symbol of the new Germany,"
Becker says. Now when he spoke out, he had all the authority he
could handle. "I wasn't just talking about it; I lived it," he
says. "I've felt racism because of her, because of Noah. Because
they look a little different, they get treated differently, so
it's credible if I talk about it now."

"He was a kind of social hero," says Paul Sahner, a longtime
friend of Becker's and a writer for Bunte magazine. "They were a
glamour couple. Many people lived their dreams through Boris and
Barbara."

So much so that, by 1997, when Becker curtailed his tournament
play and their marriage started crumbling, Boris and Barbara
still put on a perfect face. "We almost had no choice but to play
along," says Becker, "and it put more pressure on the
relationship than already existed. That's probably why we're
divorced today. We started to play roles to please everyone."

The marriage ended with a spectacular crash. On Nov. 9, 2000, the
62nd anniversary of the Nazi attack on Jews known as
Kristallnacht, Becker marched with 200,000 others through the
streets of Berlin to protest Germany's rising tide of racist
violence. He was the very picture of a serious man. Only one
month later, he was an object of ridicule around the world.

Becker had no one to blame but himself. Since the previous March,
he had been quietly pressed by a London-based Russian
waitress-model for up to $5 million to support a daughter she
claimed was his. Boris and Barbara agree that this didn't cause
their split, but it didn't help that Barbara first learned of the
baby when she took a call at home last August from the Russian
woman herself.

On Nov. 23 Becker told his wife he wanted a separation, touching
off a hurricane of marital nastiness. He says divorce was the
furthest thing from his mind, but less than a week later Barbara
flew to Miami with their sons, and on Dec. 8 she applied in Dade
County Circuit Court for financial protection, child support and
use of the $3 million Fisher Island condominium--in effect
sidestepping a prenuptial agreement that entitled her to a single
$2.5 million payoff. Charges and countercharges flew, sending the
German media into what the weekly Der Spiegel called a "state of
emergency."

Out spilled one revelation after another. In early December the
press linked Becker with a German rap star named Sabrina Setlur
after they were seen checking into the same Black Forest hotel at
which Boris and Barbara had honeymooned in 1993. On Jan. 12 the
Russian waitress-model, Angela Ermakova, went public, claiming
that she and Becker had had sex in a broom closet at London's
Nobu restaurant on the last night of June 1999. Becker called
Ermakova's story "false," and--though he never elaborated--a flurry
of reports appeared saying Becker planned to claim that the two
had engaged only in oral sex and that Ermakova had transferred
his semen to her womb as part of a blackmail scheme. The tabloids
pounced. BECKER: RUSSIAN MAFIA TRIED TO STEAL MY SPERM.

On Feb. 4 Becker publicly blamed his divorce on Barbara's
friendship with a racy group of Munich women who dubbed
themselves the Tits and Ass Club. By contrast, he told Der
Spiegel, "I took the job of father earnestly." He also told a
German newspaper that the love between him and Setlur was a
"little plant that must be fed." (Becker and Setlur have since
broken up.) On Feb. 7 DNA tests confirmed his paternity of
Ermakova's child, and Becker agreed to make payments to Ermakova
that will eventually total about $1.5 million. "I take
responsibility," he said in a statement to the press. "Children
are the most innocent people in our world."

"If Boris had more than just charm and balls," says Samuel I.
Burstyn, Barbara's divorce lawyer, "he'd really be dangerous."

It ended, as these things will, in a tawdry mess--and one in which
Becker views himself as the greater victim. Divorce has a way of
narrowing the broadest mind, and for the moment Becker's admits
only his perspective. He has been deceitful but feels deceived.
He admits affairs but insists that marriage should be bigger than
infidelity, that it was his and Barbara's diverging priorities
that led to the split.

"People kissed her ass, and she started to enjoy it," Becker
says. "We didn't have enough time for us. There was too much
party. She wanted to become a singer, and I'd say, 'We shouldn't
forget family.' I'm not saying I was the best husband. I spent
too much time away. But I was trying to make her aware that it's
only the four of us. We're the boat, and we shouldn't rock the
boat."

Barbara declined to be interviewed, but Burstyn says Boris's
peccadillos alone set the boat rocking, and his rendezvous with
Setlur at the honeymoon hotel convinced Barbara that the marriage
was done. Boris, meanwhile, is sure Barbara had plotted to leave
him for months. "On the other hand," he says, "I'm proud she is a
smart lady and knows exactly what she's doing. I have more
respect for her now than I had before."

This sounds odd, but then Becker also dined daily with his wife
and kids during the legal maneuverings. On Jan. 4 he took the
stand in a pretrial hearing and answered two hours of questions
while Burstyn made him look like a cad for a live TV audience in
Germany. That night, Becker went back to Fisher Island and, he
says, told Barbara, "[If we go to trial], it's your turn. And not
for two hours: My lawyer's going to grill you for six." Becker
says she agreed to settle the case then, but Burstyn insists that
two days before Becker was to give a deposition about his
financial affairs, he called Burstyn at home and surrendered.

Either way, Becker lost. The boys would live with Barbara, she
and Boris would share custody, and Barbara would get a package
widely reported to be worth $14.4 million. Becker's consolation
prize: On Jan. 18, Noah's seventh birthday, he spent the night at
the Fisher Island condo for the first time since November, using
a guest bedroom--an informal arrangement that will continue
indefinitely. "We live during the day like a family," Becker
says. "Then I sleep in my room, and she sleeps in hers. It's
very, very weird."

There are times, he says, when he and Barbara ask each other,
"What did we do?" Sometimes, he adds, they talk about getting
back together, maybe even getting married again. "I love her,"
Becker says, "but that was a big hurt in December. I have made a
lot of mistakes, some I will regret the rest of my life, but I
would never do anything to purposely hurt my family. This woman
had my heart. For her to do something like she did showed a side
of her I didn't know. I'm scared. I'm basically scared of the
woman."

Seven mirrors stand waiting on the stage. Becker takes his
position before them, and the photographer starts snapping,
belting out commands to the assistants who stand behind each
mirror, adjusting. "Number 4, you're making him look like a
giant," the photographer says.

"I am a giant," Becker says, and whether he is being serious is
unclear. As a player, he assumed regal prerogatives, took
massages during bathroom breaks, set up to receive serve only
when he was good and ready. Of Wimbledon, he'd say, "This is
where I live," and before each match that's how he would act.

"The attendants used to come in and say, 'Mr. Becker, five
minutes,'" says Nick Bollettieri, who coached him in 1994 and
'95. "He was in his jogging clothes, didn't pay attention. 'Mr.
Becker, four minutes.' He would take the clothes off, fold them
piece by piece. Go into the bathroom. 'Mr. Becker, it's time.' He
would come out, slowly put on his tennis clothes. 'Mr. Becker,
it's time.' But he wouldn't pay attention, and no referee said a
word. They were scared s---less."

There are signs--a telltale use of the third person, a low-grade
paranoia--that Becker's sense of his own importance has not
diminished with the end of his career. If anything, two months on
the front page of German newspapers have convinced him that he
still takes up much space in the public imagination, his travails
a delight for the masses.

"Finally: a little payback," he says. "Becker was the winner for
so long. 'The best in tennis with the best-looking wife,
beautiful kids, money, he's smart--whatever he touches is gold!'
In Germany they thought they had me in a box, and they can't cope
with the fact that I'm 33, single, so they stir it up. Because I
am so much in that country."

Even now, Becker is the biggest name in Germany, eclipsing
singers and chancellors. In the 20 months that he has been
spokesman for America Online-Germany, the public's awareness of
the brand has more than doubled, and his signature line, Ich Bin
Drin! (I'm in!), has become the country's catchall phrase for
going online. "I don't know if a Michael Jordan comparison is
strong enough," says AOL-Germany marketing director Phillipp
Schindler. "Boris's sympathy levels are outstanding. He is the
German superstar."

This can carry Becker far, obviously, and he will need it. By the
end of his playing days, the youthful clarity that so pleased Ion
Tiriac had been muddied. Becker didn't train as hard as before,
he bullied opponents with his stature. "I can describe Boris very
quickly," says Bollettieri. "He knew a lot; what he didn't know,
he thought he knew; and he would intimidate people into thinking
that he knew it."

Becker has done well with his three Mercedes dealerships outside
Berlin and by lending his name to AOL, DaimlerChrysler, Volkl
rackets and the RTL television network. But his stint as
Germany's Davis Cup manager ended in failure in 1999, largely
because he couldn't get along with one of the country's leading
players, Nicolas Kiefer. That same year Becker was the front man
for a $300 million bid by the London-based agency Prisma to
market the ATP Tour, but Prisma lost out because Becker demanded
too much control. His short stint advising Australian star Mark
Philippoussis at last year's Wimbledon fizzled too.

"He said he wanted to coach me and to help me with all sorts of
things outside tennis," says another pro, Germany's Tommy Haas.
"He promised two years ago that he would come to all the Masters
Series tournaments because he had to go to them anyway [to do TV
commentary]. That promise never came through." Becker's
explanation: He wanted not just to advise Haas part time but to
take charge of all decisions--coaching, marketing,
scheduling--since, he reasoned, any failure would be blamed on him
anyway. But Haas didn't want to split with IMG, and it's probably
just as well: By then Becker's life had frayed at every seam.

Just as his marriage started to crumble, Becker's longtime
business manager and close friend, Axel Meyer-Wolden, died of
cancer in 1997. Two years later Becker's father, Karl-Heinz,
died. Boris, a star since he was 16, had never indulged in the
usual experimentation nor made the usual mistakes of a boy's late
teens. Few were surprised when, at 32, he began indulging himself
as never before.

His final day as a player, at Wimbledon in 1999, stands like a
doorway between his glorious past and his soiled present. Becker,
who'd made his name serving and volleying, lost in straight sets
in the fourth round to Pat Rafter, the game's last
serve-and-volley specialist. Becker knew he was done. He had
liked sitting in the locker room during the rain delays that day,
talking to older players back for seniors matches, but he felt
removed from the whole scene, as if watching someone else
complete his career. After losing he met with the press and began
drinking. Barbara was seven months pregnant with Elias. She
wanted to spend the night alone with Boris, but he had other
ideas.

"This is the night!" Becker recalls. "I'm officially out, no way
back, and I'm celebrating with my buddies, and we drink and
drink. I have a big argument with her, and she goes crazy and I
go crazy, and I say, 'This is a very important day of my life. On
this night, I don't want to fight; it's not allowed.' But she
went on and I went on, and I drink more. I was crazy."

He ended up at Nobu with friends, and there was Ermakova, the
colossal blunder he didn't make until his career's last day. He
was still buzzing with the thrill of his final match, still
wanting a piece of the action. Then he was in a closet; standing
outside himself for the second time that day, he watched someone
named Boris Becker drunkenly sire a daughter. "I had no idea what
I was doing," he says. "It wasn't an affair. It was just
poom-bah-boom!"

Ever since, Becker has tried to keep busy. He has cooked in a
high hat with chef Paul Bocuse in one TV special, hung out with
designer Karl Lagerfeld in another. He owns half of Volkl and is
trying to expand its market share. He is doing plenty of
interviews. Still, for a man so apt to see all kinds of signals
of his own greatness, his world is sometimes dominated by a
frivolousness that is almost painful to see.

One night in March, Becker went to a South Beach club called Bed,
where dinner and drinks are served to customers as they loll
about on giant beds. In walked Sean (Puffy) Combs, fresh from New
York City and his recent acquittal on gun charges. Becker and
Combs compared notes on their rides through the celebrity
courtroom circus. "I was in bed with Puffy, actually--and a
beautiful Indian girl and a Hungarian girl," Becker says. "They
bring us a meal, the food, appetizers, fruit, champagne.
Continental cuisine."

As his friend Sahner sees it, "Until 1999, Boris didn't have too
much of a fun life. In Germany there's a lot of talk that he's
running to find his lost childhood. Now he must find his way. If
he continues to do what he did the last two years, it will be
very dangerous for him and his image."

"He looks lost," says Haas. "He would like to have a family, but
on the other hand he feels good about being free so he can do
what he wants. It's tough: When you're on the tour for as long as
he was, as successful as he was, as committed, you miss out on
some things. Now he's really got nothing."

Yet, there are flashes. Becker is a member of the Europe-based
Laureus World Sports Academy, a foundation devoted to achieving
social change through sports, and when he heard about its support
of the Richmond-based Midnight Basketball program, he insisted on
seeing it in action. A barely publicized event in mid-April
promised Becker little in the way of image-polishing, but he went
to Richmond anyway, attended a workshop, gave a pep talk,
borrowed some socks and sneakers and played ball--all before an
audience of only 100 people. A month earlier, he had spent two
days working in a Berlin program for juvenile delinquents. He
still wants to make a difference.

"Boris is a serious man," says former U.S. track star Edwin
Moses, chairman of the World Sports Academy. "We talk about
social issues all the time. He's taken a beating, but with his
strength and character, he'll come back and do some fantastic
things."

The same objectivity that allowed Boris to admire Barbara even as
she took him apart also enables him to see that his career
created an entity beyond himself--a creature of fame named Boris
Becker--that threatens to trap him in a life of fraudulence. He
can't decide if his life is a Wagnerian opera or a Beckett farce,
so he takes himself too seriously and pokes fun at himself, often
at the same time. He recently finished shooting a movie in
Germany, playing himself. "Yeah, myself," Becker says. "Whatever
Boris I'm supposed to be that day."

A few nights later, Becker is at a dinner with Volkl retailers.
He poses for pictures, jokes about his woman trouble, patiently
answers the same old questions. "You still have that glow," says
one man. "For my wife and her friends, you still have it. It's a
blessing."

"And sometimes a curse," Becker says.

Becker is speeding down I-95, rushing to catch a flight to Los
Angeles for the Academy Awards, during which he'll wander about
with a TV crew and draw huge ratings in Germany. Earlier today,
however, at a gathering with Volkl retailers on a tennis court at
a Miami resort, he picked up a racket and swung it behind and
over his head, tossing an imaginary ball. "It's still there," a
retailer said. Becker nodded.

He still wants to play. He has scheduled a series of seniors
events in the next few months, and there's persistent talk about
a showcase match against John McEnroe after the women's final at
this year's U.S. Open. Most of all, Becker wants one more taste
of Wimbledon, wants to play doubles in the main draw--not this
summer but next, when his game is in better shape. Becker knows
he will never do anything as well as he played tennis. He has
found only one thing that even brings him close.

"That Sunday afternoon: You're in the Wimbledon final, it's the
third set, and you're about to win," Becker says. "Those 20
minutes and then that night and the next couple weeks are just
heaven. This is something I miss. Because even with a great
business deal, it's not the same sensation. Tennis is an art
form. I feel as if I'm performing on a stage in front of millions
of people, and I was sometimes able to fascinate them for two
weeks. This culminates with a Sunday final, match point, and then
all the celebrations. It's like a long foreplay that ends with a
huge orgasm. That's what it is."

He does not laugh. Tennis is sex and sex is tennis; never mind
that the last time he mixed the two, he ended up in a broom
closet. Without one, life is dull for him. Without both, life is
death. Becker would like to fall in love again. For now, though,
he's thinking about the green grass of England, and giving the
world one more big bang.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Broken Promise He was a gutsy tennis champion with a social conscience, but after a messy divorce, can Boris Becker restore his image? [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER COLOR PHOTO: HARLAN ROSS FELTUS/STERN/BLACK STAR Double exposure Becker's marriage to Barbara (above, with him in 1993) came apart largely because of his liaisons with Ermakova (top right, with their daughter) and Setlur. COLOR PHOTO: REX USA (ERMAKOVA) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: MARCOU/SIPA PRESS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG/HBO Love and love After his surprise victory at Wimbledon in '85, the 17-year-old Becker got a royal welcome back home in Leimen. COLOR PHOTO: GERARD VANDYSTADT [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK FARRELL/MIAMI HERALD/AP Divorce, Becker style Four months after Boris testified in divorce court, he shopped with Barbara and Noah in Miami. COLOR PHOTO: BIG PICTURES USA [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PAUL ZIMMER/ACTION PRESS Power couple The Beckers met Nelson Mandela and future wife Graca Machel in '97; now Boris hangs with celebs like Tiger Woods. COLOR PHOTO: ULI DECK/AFP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER

Haven't headlines pronounced Becker Germany's most famous satyr?

Gossip and play-by-play bored him. He wanted to engage the world
beyond tennis.

"We live during the day like a family," Becker says. "It's very
weird."

He and Barbara were "a symbol of the new Germany," Boris says.

He still wants to make a difference. "Boris is a serious man,"
Moses says.

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)