TAUGHT HIM A LESSON : West German Idol Boris Becker Had to Learn a Lot About Life in 1987
Life in America, land of instant celebrity and disposable heroes, is completely foreign to Boris Becker.
Here, the Wally Joyners are quickly replaced in the public’s consciousness by the Mark McGwires. The John Elways are eclipsed by a Doug Williams in a single quarter. There’s even talk, previously unthinkable, that Mario Lemieux is closing in on Wayne Gretzky.
Boris, off the cover of the sports pages in West Germany, back with the Volkswagen tire ads? Never.
Becker discovered years ago--well, it seems like years--that he was different, and always would be different in West Germany. Uebermensch . A superman in his country. No matter what Steffi Graf, the world’s No. 1 women’s player does, Boris is still Boris.
And if you don’t believe it, Becker invites you to take a plane flight with him.
“I think you have to see how many people come to see her in an airport and how it is with me,” said Becker, matter-of-factly.
This is one reason why 1987 was so difficult for Becker--and the rest of West Germany--to swallow.
In 1987, a year in which Becker was expected to challenge Ivan Lendl for No. 1 and win his third straight Wimbledon title, the West German lost several places in the rankings, lost his coach, lost his health for a time, and, lost another huge chunk of innocence.
“I’ve learned as much as I’ve ever learned the last half year . . . about life,” Becker said. “Yes, everything before was only successes. It was only sunshine until then (Wimbledon). It was a year of so many things.”
Really, his year started with a false start. If you break Becker’s 1987 season into three parts the first could be titled:
The Breakdown Down Under and The Breakup.
His fourth-round loss to Wally Masur in the Australian Open also included a drawn-out tantrum, consisting of Becker hitting balls toward the umpire’s chair and out of the stadium, breaking three rackets and spitting water in the umpire’s direction.
Shortly thereafter, Becker’s longtime coach, Gunther Bosch, announced his departure, saying he was upset with his protege’s behavior and attitude concerning training. The loss of Bosch and its effect was manifested in a couple of ways. First, some sting has come off Becker’s serve, his trademark stroke. All through 1987, he struggled with the shot, searching for his lost timing.
Second, Becker started to feel the pressure as everyone questioned the wisdom of his being without a coach or whether his new girlfriend, Benedict Courtin, was a distraction.
And, certainly Bosch wasn’t shy about discussing Becker’s shortcomings, post-breakup, after each loss. Becker heard and read those words, too. At the U.S. Open, he spoke about the hurt and made it clear there were no plans for a reunion with Bosch in 1988.
Last month, when Becker was in Los Angeles to promote the Newsweek Champions Cup at Indian Wells, Calif., which starts today, he shed new light on the matter of Bosch.
“Should I be honest?” Becker asked. “I was thinking, really, a half year before Melbourne about splitting with him. Because he couldn’t give me what I needed. He had not enough knowledge for that high level of playing. He never did it. I was the first guy, that’s why everybody got it wrong. Everybody thought he was the greatest coach in history. (Ion) Tiriac, all the time, was the coach.
“He (Bosch) was a good, psychological man. He could make you feel good. That’s very important in tennis, but it’s not enough, not enough to become the best. He was good in that way, to motivate me, to make me feel good, but he had nothing to do with the tennis.
“Everybody got it wrong. But it’s all right with me. I don’t want to hurt the man. He did good things for me. . . . He hurt me, but yet he hurt himself more than he did me. So, that was the whole deal.”
In the immediate post-Bosch period, Becker was able to quiet some of the criticism as he won the Indian Wells event--defeating Stefan Edberg in the final--without losing a set. After producing mixed results through the winter and spring, it looked as though Becker was on a smooth course en route to a third straight Wimbledon title. He reached the semifinals of the French Open on clay, and staved off a strong challenge from Jimmy Connors to win at Queen’s, a pre-Wimbledon tournament.
There was little indication that little-known Peter Doohan would ambush Becker in the second round at Wimbledon, setting a dissonant tone for the rest of 1987.
Part II, The Ambush: Boris Meets Peter.
“Afterward, you always say, ‘I could do that, or maybe I should have done that,’ ” Becker said. “And he didn’t even get nervous. Normally, you make a few double faults. I had it in my mind that, hopefully, he was going to get nervous sooner or later. But no way.
“But I take it. I took the first two Wimbledons. I have to take this one, too.”
So, unlike 1985 and 1986, Becker was without his trademark victory, a Wimbledon crown. Which, considering the security the other two had given him through the rest of the year, placed that much more attention on West Germany’s Davis Cup relegation-round match against the United States in July at Hartford, Conn.
Part III, Hartford Revisited.
When it was over, Becker tossed his racket about 20 rows up into the stands at the Hartford Civic Center and hugged West German captain Nikki Pilic. To reach that point, giving West Germany a 3-2 victory, Becker had to win two, epic five-set matches. In the first, he survived a near-seven-hour contest against a yelling, fighting John McEnroe. Then, Becker nearly squandered a two-sets-to-love lead against Tim Mayotte but held on to clinch the West German victory.
For Becker, who was 19 then, the Hartford event didn’t signal a turnaround for him in 1987, but, nevertheless, the weekend came close to matching his two Wimbledon victories.
“I would put the whole tie definitely up with Wimbledon and a couple of other tournaments,” Becker said. “Sure, Wimbledon is one, and right behind is that thing. For me, it was very, very difficult, only a few people know. Also, the pressure, you were there. It is difficult to describe what was happening there. To be there at the end, to fight it out.”
At Hartford, it had been suggested by U.S. captain Tom Gorman and others, that Pilic put an inordinate amount of pressure on Becker by pulling him out of the doubles on the second day, basically conceding the point to Ken Flach and Robert Seguso.
“If you see me that next morning, I was lying on the floor,” he said. “If I had played doubles, I wouldn’t have a chance the next day.”
What hurt the most after the McEnroe match?
“Everything!” he said. “I was just moving my leg and I’d say, ‘Ahh . . . my leg!’ It wasn’t possible for me to play.”
Curiously, the crowd reaction at Hartford ended up bothering Becker more than anything McEnroe said to him on the court.
“When he yells at me, that gives me more power,” Becker said. “Adrenaline? That made me even want it more, to want to win.”
Yet, away from the court, McEnroe and Becker get along. They are similar in their fondness for Davis Cup play, and, in 1987, McEnroe and Becker were strangely linked by their problems. Now, 1988 brings forth more questions about their competitive futures.
However, there’s one big difference. McEnroe is 29 and Becker is just 20.
Becker, too, agrees that he and McEnroe share some similarities.
“In many ways, yes,” he said. “That we can rise on the occasions. On the big things, we can rise. The (Davis Cup) match was just a perfect example.”
There was one more thing the two players shared in the post-Davis Cup period: More problems. McEnroe recorded so-so results leading up to the U.S. Open and his year culminated there with a straight-set quarterfinal loss to Lendl. Not to be forgotten was his now-famous outburst in the third round against Slobodan Zivojinovic at the Open, resulting in a hefty fine and a two-month suspension.
Becker didn’t have any additional on-court blowups, rather, his knees blew out. After the Davis Cup match, he lost to American Brad Gilbert at Washington, the U.S. Open and the Masters. Mercifully, the book was closed on 1987.
“Gilbert is maybe the only guy I’ve lost to a couple of times,” Becker said. “I was never able to play full against him. I was sick (in Washington). I was dead. At the Open, my mind was gone, my knees were already long gone.”
Already, 1988 has a new, important character who has joined the Becker camp. Instead of the omnipresent, super-manager Tiriac lurking nearby, Becker’s new coach, Bob Brett, accompanied him through the day-long media blitz in Los Angeles last month. Brett has been through these things before, having coached many other tour players, but once again Becker is unlike anyone else.
And, at least for now, Brett wants Becker to do the talking, politely declining to answer questions about his star player. While it seemed as though Becker and Bosch had a father-son relationship, Brett and Becker act more like close friends, teasing each other in two languages. This day, Brett’s skiing abilities are the topic of discussion.
All the while, Becker is asking questions--in between thinking of the answers. He wants to know who is doing what and why at the Australian Open. Brett dutifully reads the scores as Becker reacts with disbelief and glee at some of the results.
After losing so early at Wimbledon, Becker said one of the hardest things was not being able to compete. This time, missing Melbourne because of knee problems, he feels the same way. He’s kind of like the gym rat sitting on the sideline and watching everyone else play basketball because the coach knows this punishment hurts the most.
“I’m at the moment where I can’t wait,” Becker said. “I want to play now. I’m ready to play. I haven’t felt like this since a long time ago, Wimbledon ’86.”
He is ready to show the world that there is life after Bosch.
“He (Brett) is my first real trainer,” Becker said. “Bosch was anything else but a trainer, he was my friend. Tiriac is my manager, my friend, but not really like a trainer, not from the old style. His (Brett’s) teacher was (the late Harry) Hopman. He is 110% Hopman. And that’s what I missed, and that’s what I have now.
“I haven’t seen so many guys like him that really, really love their work. He could work 10 hours a day. He drills me and really tries to bring out the best in me. . . . I hope you aren’t listening, Bob.”
Becker smiles and winks at Brett.
What Becker did enjoy about his time off was that he had plenty of time to think. He did a great deal of reflecting and speaks philosophically about tennis and life, at times sounding like his mentor, Tiriac.
“You must understand this about the guy, Boris was never young,” Flach once said.
Among the responsibilities Becker has assumed at his advanced age is tour spokesman. With the absence of McEnroe and as Jimmy Connors plays a limited schedule, Becker is one of the best quotes on the tour. Others won’t--or can’t--articulate on the wide and varied topics Becker covers in an interview.
You see, Becker feels like he is learning something when he is being interviewed. He watches sports interview shows and takes mental notes. Before going on ESPN’s SportsLook, Becker knew what he would encounter. “I know he (Roy Firestone) asks good questions,” Becker said. Later, after another local television announcer finished with Becker, he commented: “But he had no papers,” meaning the man had no questions written out.
Which brings us to what Boris was thinking about when he was in exile all this time.
“I could see myself being a journalist,” he said. “I like it very much. I like meeting very important people to see what they have in mind, how they are. I like what’s all about journalism, writing books about something, making newspapers, writing for newspapers. Maybe getting into politics, but just in a low-key way, just that I have a little knowledge.
“I also would maybe like to have a sports show. Because not many know as well as the real athletes what’s happening, and you have the best connections.”
He even has his pitch down:
“Like this: ‘Listen, do me a favor tonight, I need you on the show.’ You would say OK. But if you would come in, it would be, ‘Ah . . . talk to my manager, not with me.’ OK, like that. So I would have a lot of influence. But it’s coming after I finish tennis. For me, it was important to already think about that. It makes tennis much more fun for me because I know I only have eight, nine or 10 years left.”
In the meantime, Becker will be providing the succinct quotes for 30-second sound bites in English and German. He has an opinion on everything when asked about someone or some topic, among them:
--Pat Cash. “He’s a type like Connors. He doesn’t know much about anything else but tennis. As a human being, he was born, I guess, very cocky. And his father, actually all the Aussies are like that. That’s typical. And he is like that. So, it’s easier for him to rise to big occasions than a nice guy, like Stefan (Edberg). And he wears his earring.”
--Connors. “Oh Jimmy, he’s a fox, huh? Jimmy . . there hasn’t been one born like that, I think. He also went through many stages in his career. I haven’t seen the first ones or the middle ones, I’ve only seen the last ones. He, as what I’ve heard, he really grew into a fox also for the outside. He’s just a competitor which I don’t think the game has ever seen.”
--McEnroe. “Sure he can lift his ranking. I think he could be very dangerous at Wimbledon, if he goes to the quarterfinals, once he’s there. But, at the rest, I don’t think so. Because he’s lost something. Extra step, a little bit more finesse, a little more mind. A few parts here, a few there. He lost something and that’s what makes him a great tennis player, but not No. 1.”
--Edberg. “There’s one thing, being a good tennis player and another thing is being a good match player. He definitely is one of the best tennis players in the world. But then, he’s also a very good match player and he’s improved a lot. But he’s not the match player he could be, like a (Mats) Wilander. I would say Wilander is a much more dangerous player in Grand Slams even though Edberg is a much better tennis player.
“For Mats, it’s easier to do than for Edberg. I guess for Edberg tennis is life. I don’t know him 110%. But that’s from my impressions and that’s what my Swedish colleagues tell me. He lives for tennis, he drinks tennis and does everything for tennis. I guess you come to the point where you get too much tennis. It means the world for you. He always thinks about tennis, in what he drinks for the evening. Which is good and it brought him where he is. But, in big matches, you have to go out to enjoy it, and want to win, and not, ‘Hopefully, I don’t lose it.’ ”
--Wilander. “He does many things and he’s very intelligent. Marrying, vice president of ATP, he makes music, he golfs. So, I guess that puts less pressure on him.”
--Lendl. “I respect him much more than ever. I’m really good friends with him. And I can see myself having a very good relationship with him after tennis. Also, his girlfriend and my girlfriend are friends. They get along very well together. They go shopping . . . too bad for me.”
--On the state of tennis. “I would say the tennis state is very good. I miss a little bit of the personalities which is so important for the sport itself. Because it makes it good or it makes it bad. And even though everybody was unhappy with McEnroe, thanks to McEnroe and (Ilie) Nastase and Connors, they’ve made tennis a sport for people. At the moment, we are missing those guys. They’re getting out of tennis, and not everybody can fulfill what they did.”
--On whether exhibitions reflect badly on the game. “Sometimes, they make up events. And, of course, the players say yes. Everybody likes money, I guess. I personally, would only make a nine-month tour, then those events would be great . . . It (tennis) is not much fun anymore. You really have to break too many rules. You have to say, ‘I’m sick,’ if you’re not sick. Or you have to take a 10-week break like Mats did.”
--On what he will do differently in 1988. “Now, I really play for myself. I don’t go out on the court if I don’t want to. One of the mistakes I made was I listened to too many voices, but at the end I wasn’t happy with it. And I have to live with it. I’m on the court, I have to make the decision at 30-40, how I am going to play the point.
“Also, not to be so unbelievably happy when I win and not so unbelieveably sad when I lose. Because I see that people have reasons to be sad and people have reasons to be happy. I don’t really have reasons, like a real reason.”
Last summer, Becker watched the Iran- contra hearings with great interest. His father dabbles in politics, but Becker said he could never do that because he calls himself stubborn and unwilling to compromise.
For him, between musing about U.S.-Soviet relations, there is another concern these days, something which really bothers him.
“About, generally, there are not really many good guys left,” Becker said. “Even the church . . . I was in Rome and I went there to give a racket to him (the Pope) because he’s a very important man for me. And then, he is, for me a great guy. But then his colleague took a picture and said it was only for the church, the Vatican. I said, ‘Ah, sure, anything.’ And then, it was in every newspaper, you know.
“And those things, I said, ‘What is it, is everything becoming commercial?’ But I’m too naive, probably, to think there are still some good guys. That’s what I pick up right away, those things.”
Does he think there are any great men left?
“I cannot tell because I don’t know them all so well,” Becker said. "(Bruce) Springsteen, is for me, a big hero. I hope and I’m sure he is a great guy. But I don’t know him, like really know him.”
For Boris, spotting the great tennis players is a simpler assignment. Lendl, of course, is one. McEnroe. Connors.
And then there’s that red-haired, raw-boned kid from Leimen, West Germany. Just give him a couple years.