For someone whose life is a bit up in the air right now, the amount of time Boris Becker spends in planes is symbolic. Last Tuesday he flew into London from Miami, where he had been visiting his estranged wife, Barbara, and their two sons, before nipping off up to Scotland to appear as a guest (12 handicap) in the Dunhill celebrity golf event.
The London stopover was to confirm his participation in the seniors tennis tournament, the Honda Challenge, at the Albert Hall from 5-9 December and to drum up interest for a clash with the event's three-time champion, John McEnroe. On his retirement from the professional circuit two years ago, Becker said he had no desire to become involved in the geriatric version of the game, so the decision has raised an eyebrow or three.
As the successful constructor of a business empire, and with people clamouring to put his name and face to their products, Becker clearly is not coming back to tennis for the money. Although he does not say so, friends think he misses his mates and the atmosphere, rather as Bjorn Borg did when he found that making (and in his case, losing) money in business was boring. A return to the scene, and the city, of his former triumphs is as good a way as any of obtaining relief from the mess his personal life had got into.
Becker met the media at the London Hilton, one of the Albert Hall tournament sponsors. The hotel was perhaps not the most diplomatic of locations, situated as it is only a few yards from the restaurant, Nobu, where in June 1999 Boris fathered a child in a broom-cupboard encounter with a Russian waitress. But nobody mentioned Nobu as Becker explained why he wants to play tennis again.
"This is a new start for me," he said, looking fresh and cheerful despite the overnight Atlantic flight. "This is my second tennis career, but I wouldn't call it a comeback in any shape or form because my old days are history. I will be playing with people of my own age, or even older, and in a different atmosphere. I am not going to play every week, or even every month. Probably a maximum of five or six tournaments a year, plus a few special events and exhibitions." A couple of earlier bids to get back into tennis misfired. At a seniors occasion in Graz, Austria, in July, Becker broke down in the second set against Borg. Then a proposed exhibition at the US Open on 8 September against McEnroe was abandoned when Boris, notoriously prone to injury and aches, reported a damaged ankle.
Although, at 33, he is technically too young for the 35-and-over tour, Becker insists his fitness level is a balancing factor. "I haven't really played the last two years at all and since, unfortunately, tennis is a game where you have to run a lot, you can't just snap your fingers and come back. Against Borg in July I wasn't in physical shape but I'll be ready in December. As for being a bit young, the main guy winning these tournaments, McEnroe, is past 40 yet he is beating people six and seven years younger.
"But at the end of the day we are not playing the Wimbledon championships, just hopefully giving a full house an entertaining week of tennis. Sure, everybody hates losing, especially if you have been used to winning quite a lot, but this is not Wimbledon."
Three Wimbledon titles, plus four other appearances in the final, and four victories at the Queen's Club Stella Artois event, guided Becker's choice of city for the return. He used to refer to Centre Court, with a proprietorial air, as "my living room", and London, he says, is his favourite city. He once talked of an intention to make London his home, away from the racist element in Germany who vilified him for marrying a black, but that plan has been abandoned.
While they sort out the complications, financial and otherwise, of a split followed by proposals of a reconciliation, Barbara and their sons, Noah and Elias, are living in Becker's home on the exclusive Fisher Island, a ferry ride from Miami. Boris still lives in Munich. "But I am travelling so much that I am most of the time living in airplanes," he said. "Living in London used to be part of my plans, but not right now. First and foremost, though, I am playing here because it is the city where I play my best tennis."
Though he has just started a new company in Switzerland, Becker's business base is Munich. He has lent his name to celebrity bashes and at one of these, called Planet Majorca in Magaluf earlier this year, the co-host was Claudia Schiffer. There was a Boris Becker golf trophy to be competed for, as well as a charity football match (in which Boris scored the winning goal).
One friend and former colleague feels Becker's rekindled interest in playing reflects some disillusionment with business life: "When he finished playing, Boris jumped into various things, which turned out to be not as good as he thought, so he has changed the emphasis and taken a little step back to sort out his personal life." Becker's communications manager, Robert Lubenoff, claims Becker is not cutting down his business involvement but, rather, "not telling a lot about what he is doing". As someone keen to be, a couple of years back, the front man for a new-style tennis circuit, Becker stresses that the sport faces multiple problems and challenges.
"Already tennis has changed, already there are improvements, but we are not there yet," he said. "I am in the tennis community for life, like it or not. At the end of the day we have to find solutions to change tennis, to make it more attractive for spectators, media, TV, even for the players. So we are all basically in the same boat."
Becker turned down offers – pleas, even – to become president of the German tennis federation and captain of the nation's Davis Cup team. Instead, he prefers to nurture his baby, a junior development scheme which has mushroomed from a four-boy squad into the federation's official programme. "I am very active in this and I think I can be more helpful in that position than being federation president," he said. In whatever role, Becker remains Germany's most famous person. After he won his third Wimbledon in 1989, a poll showed 98 per cent of Germans recognised the name. A more recent survey found the percentage had increased to 100.
"Unfortunately, this is true," sighed Becker, with a shrug and a small smile. "Wherever I go I am still hunted down. The brutal thing is that I am famous 24 hours a day. I got thrown into the sea at 17 and it was a case of sink or swim. I somehow made it to land but I swallowed a lot of water on the way."Reuse content