Even in a business suit, navy pinstripe and beautifully cut, Boris Becker is a white-clad teenager straining to get out. Seated opposite him in a tiny, upstairs office typical of a Soho media agency, you get a sense of what it must have been like to face him on court. His massive, athletic frame effortlessly dominates the space, and though he is sitting he appears poised to resume the court the moment the umpire calls time. He says he doesn't play any more on account of fading knees and hips, but in my mind he never stops. He is a permanent download, flamethrowing at the net.
Becker's big push in gathering middle age is to promote the idea of sport as a tool for personal and social advancement. On this subject he presents to an audience in Doha in December. He is not the first to this idea, obviously, but he might be the most enthusiastic. Becker was a middle-class kid from Heidelberg, the son of an architect, some distance removed from the demographic that he is addressing on his global speaking engagements, but that does not weaken his argument. Tennis was his route to a life he could never have imagined had he not picked up a racket at the club his father founded. And he is right when he claims that he has a voice now only because of his achievements on court.
His words have special significance in Britain, given the paradox played out annually at Wimbledon, which sees the greatest tournament in tennis contested largely by players from anywhere but the host nation. Andy Murray's victory this year was no way a riposte to the historic failure of Britain to produce players of international class. Famously, Murray fled to Spain to develop his talent. And to underline the point, the climax of the men's season, the ATP World Tour Finals, plays out in London next week minus British involvement.
The LTA has appointed a new chief executive, Michael Downey, to crack the apathy that has blighted past generations. He might start by talking to Becker. "From what I have read he wants to get more people involved at grass-roots level. That is essential. Playing sport is a good way to lead your life anyway. You don't have to become professional to enjoy the experience. There should be more PE hours in school. Yes, education is important. To learn maths, physics, maybe German, is great but sport is vital too, as a way of learning about life. Tennis-wise we have a huge hype in this country now. You have the greatest tennis tournament in the world, you have one of the best players in the world, the current Wimbledon champion, and you have the ATP Tour Finals in London. If you don't grab the possibilities by the neck now, you are never going to do it.
"The LTA has the money, so we know that is not the issue. It is a question of how you spend it, of who is running the tennis programmes, how many good coaches there are, who is looking at the north of England, the west, Scotland, all the regions? You need a lot of eyes looking at the right players. Every seven-year-old would want to be Andy Murray. Now is the time to convince school principals to introduce tennis to the school life. I would encourage investors to put money into facilities, link clubs and schools through special programmes . There is an Andy Murray out there somewhere, in Newcastle, in Liverpool. Yes, we love football – I'm a huge fan – but there is too much of it. There are other sports that are just as important. Tennis is one. The clocks stopped on that Sunday in July. You only had to look at the royal box. Nothing else happened that day. So now is the time to invest with serious intent."
The idea that a teenage boy might burst from the regions to reclaim the ground once occupied by Becker seems fanciful. Looking back it appears a fiction that Becker blazed his way to the Wimbledon title at 17. He struggles with the concept himself. "The older I get the less I understand that it was possible to win Wimbledon at that age, but it seemed pretty normal back then. Because I thought it was so normal I did it again the next year. If you look at the statistics now there is one teenager in the world top 100, so the chances of me keeping the record another year is high. There is a trend these days for players to start playing their best tennis in their mid-twenties. In my day there were many teenagers: McEnroe, Lendl, Borg, Edberg, Sampras, Agassi, they were all good in their teens. Now everybody is older. I can't really pinpoint the reason. Maybe it has to do with distractions, social media, stuff like that.
"For me, growing up in Heidelberg I might read one or two newspapers in the morning, then that was it. I didn't devote any more time to what was going on outside. My parents, my sister were all involved in the sport, so it was natural that I was exposed to the game at a young age. There were always courts available, which is an important message for the sport today. Tennis in the UK is still very much an elitist game. It is very expensive and few families can afford it. We speak every year about this. We are very happy to have a Murray, or a Henman before him, even a Greg [Rusedski]. But the gap between Murray and the next best player is very large. There are not enough in the top 50 or 100 to increase the chances that one of them is going to make the top 10."
The arrival in London of this generation's finest begs the question how Becker might have fared against them, and who he regards as the greatest of all time. Some shrink from engaging in this kind of sporting parlour game. Not Becker. Those advocating Roger Federer as the best ever might want to reach for the pen and paper now. I feel an "Outraged of Basel" coming on.
"We have a fascinating period now, but is it the best ever? You can't compare. Is Federer the best ever? Certainly the most successful, and probably the greatest ambassador the game has ever had. The way he plays tennis is how the tennis book tells you. But would he have beaten a Borg, a McEnroe, a Becker? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't bet against me. On grass I would not bet against Sampras. Who in their right mind could say Federer is going to win for sure? Nobody can. If the 25-year-old Becker was sitting here I would say, 'Bring them on'.
"I played with some of the best ever. I was a serve-and-volley player so having to face an Agassi return, a Lendl return, a Connors return, I can tell you it was very difficult to come to the net. You would rather not. Nowadays, when I see how so few come to the net it makes me think it would have been easier to play serve-and-volley."
And which of today's big four would give you most trouble, Boris? "Because of the way they return, I think Novak Djokovic and Murray. It would have been more difficult for me to play them than Federer of Rafa Nadal. The best I played is Sampras. On his good day, on any surface other than clay, you could not touch him. I would have a hard time believing that any player past or present would have beaten him on grass or hard court at his very best."
Boris Becker will be speaking at Doha GOALS 2013, the world's leading platform for sport as a driver for social change and economic progress, 9-11 December at the Aspire Academy in Doha. For more information visit www.dohagoals.com or follow @DohaGOALSReuse content