Boris Becker: 'Murray's desire may be bigger than his arsenal'
Boris Becker, the winner of six Grand Slams, calls on the British No 1 to appoint a new coach to find the 'something missing' – and reveals how a bad loser became so laid-back
Saturday 04 September 2010
England's favourite German is how Gary Lineker, more than once during the World Cup, introduced BBC pundit Jürgen Klinsmann. It's not so.
That slightly dubious distinction, which is never applied to Frenchmen or Americans or Spaniards and more than hints at an enduring English chippiness towards Germans in general, surely belongs unequivocally to Boris Becker.
At any rate, no other German, indeed few other retired sportsmen of any nationality, could provoke as much excitement as he does in a community hall in the back streets of Lambeth, where on a late summer's afternoon he is visiting an enterprise designed to keep at-risk youngsters off the streets at night. It is called the Midnight Basketball Project and Becker is here in his role as an ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, a fantastic charity supporting initiatives, all around the world, that deploy sport to tackle social problems.
Also at the Midnight Basketball Project is another sporting giant, Becker's fellow Laureus ambassador Sean Fitzpatrick, the mighty former All Black. And yet the assembled youngsters only have eyes for Becker, who moves among them with the late-afternoon beams of sunlight seemingly following him around, giving him the air of a 42-year-old strawberry-blond messiah. At the end of his tour he is led to an upstairs room to meet me and Anas Hassan, a huge tennis fan who paid handsomely in The Independent Christmas charity auction to accompany me on a sporting interview. I've been waiting for the right assignment for Anas, and, indubitably, here it is.
Becker is in fine form, a twinkle of amusement entering his eyes when I ask how well he recalls his one victory, 21 years ago, in the US Open, which this week has been unfolding in heat even more stifling than normal in the Big Apple, currently the Big Baked Apple.
"Well, I don't think about it every day," he says wryly. "I wasn't thinking about it this morning. But I played Ivan Lendl in the final, and beat him in four sets. We were battling for the world No 1 spot, because he'd won the French [Open] and I'd won Wimbledon, beating him in the semi-final, so the winner of our match would be No 1 for the year. He was defending champion, too. He had an unbelievable track record at the US Open, something like seven or eight finals in a row.
"But I wasn't so happy there, playing in New York City. There's never a moment of silence. The people in the stands do whatever they like; play saxophone, sing, eat, they don't really care that a tennis crowd is supposed to be silent. It's the New York state of mind, and you either hate that, or love it. In order to win you have to love it. I had to say to myself, 'For the next two weeks I like noise, I like bad behaviour, I like the incredible humidity'. Also in those days, playing next to La Guardia airport, we had Boeings passing overhead every 20 seconds. Now they have an arrangement to change the routes while the tournament is on. But you come to realise that you have to accept the circumstances. You can't beat your opponent and the circumstances, that's impossible."
Accepting the circumstances may have helped him overcome his opponent, but he also had a physical challenge to overcome; that year, as this year, the ferocious late-summer sun in New York was literally blistering. "I had bad blisters on both feet. They were both taped for the semi-final but afterwards when I took the tape off, all the skin came off. So the physio said we had to tape over the tape and that was how I played, so high on adrenalin that it didn't hurt, but after the Sunday night I couldn't walk for a week."
It was worth the pain. Between 1985 and 1996 Becker won six Grand Slam singles titles – and will surely stand for ever in the record books as the youngest man to win Wimbledon, aged just 17 – but 1989 was the only year in which he won two Slams. Having helped to nudge Lendl off the mountain top, Becker then spent the next couple of years contesting the No 1 spot with Stefan Edberg, but in September 1991 he lost the unofficial crown as king of tennis, and never regained it. I remind him of one of his own characteristically astute observations on the unique pressure bearing down on the leading player in any individual sport. "When you've been the best in the world, what's next?" he once mused.
What indeed, and does he therefore empathise with Roger Federer, no longer No 1 after 285 weeks at the top of the rankings (which included a record 237 consecutive weeks from 2004 to 2008, a run even Pete Sampras never came close to matching)?
"Well, it's interesting. Nobody has ever been No 1 for that long, or won so many Grand Slams, and I think he will win more. He has too much talent not to, and even with his mind not 100 per cent right, he still won the Australian Open this year. Tennis is not difficult for him. Even for [Rafael] Nadal it is much harder. You see how much Nadal has to work, but Federer is much lighter on his feet, like a dancer. With him the problems are not physical but mental. He is a family man now, his priority is his family, and if it wasn't he wouldn't be a good man. But he is a good man. So that is the battle he has. He needs to make an absolute priority of his tennis again, and that's not easy."
Whether he does or doesn't, the received wisdom seems to be that we are living through an unprecedented era of men's tennis, with Federer by any rational measure the greatest player of all time, and Nadal maybe destined to become, if he's not already, the second-greatest in history. But how does this notion play with Becker, I wonder?
"Well, I really like Federer and Nadal, but who is behind them? The competition is not anything like as strong as it was among my generation. In the 1980s there was myself, McEnroe, Connors, Wilander, Courier, Chang, Sampras, Agassi.... so no, I don't think this is the greatest time because you can't compare the level of competition. And sometimes you sense Federer and Nadal missing that competition. Sometimes in the early rounds you see Federer's mind wandering, because he knows he can't lose. In the 1980s and 1990s that didn't happen."
It is a persuasive argument; Becker is a persuasive fellow. I ask him whether he thinks there is anything wrong with the way tennis is administered, and he does not hesitate, suggesting that this, if not his own victories of decades ago, is something he does think about every day.
"Yes. I would change the scheduling, to have 14 or 15 mandatory tournaments every year. You can't play before, you can't play after, and then let's see who's the best. It would be like a super league of the top 50 players, and we would see longer careers, and more of Federer v Nadal. They've played each other once this year, in Madrid, and that's not enough. How many times do we see Murray v Nadal? I want to see the best against each other... Lewis Hamilton racing against Michael Schumacher."
It is a rather Germanocentric comparison, but I take the point. And what of Murray? When will he – or perhaps, simply, will he – win that elusive Slam?
"This is an important time in his career. At the moment there is something missing for him to make that next step, and there are 1,000 experts out there to tell him what it is: forehand, backhand, serve, movement, fitness, God knows what. He needs one person who knows what it is. Federer had [Tony] Roche, Lendl had Roche, I had [Ion] Tiriac, Edberg had [Tony] Pickard. We all had one guy who knew 100 per cent what was missing. I like Murray. He has the right character, and he's not afraid to play a big show match. But he wants it so bad, and sometimes the right shot is missing. I sometimes think his desire is bigger than his arsenal."
This, I venture, is but the latest of many quotable Beckerisms, of which perhaps the most memorable was issued in the wake of his second-round defeat at Wimbledon in 1987: "I lost a game of tennis, nobody died," he splendidly said. Years later, in somewhat different circumstances, he called for a similar sense of perspective concerning his notorious coupling in the London restaurant Nobu – in a broom cupboard, legend has it – with a waitress, Angela Ermakowa, which yielded a daughter. "I didn't kill nobody," he said. "I didn't rape no children. I had sex with a woman who wasn't my wife. It was wrong, but I paid for it."
Fair enough, and yet I tell Becker that in all I have read about his early years, there is no evidence of that sense of perspective he would later acquire. In fact, his childhood coach, Günter Bosch, once claimed that he had never seen anyone, in any situation, cry like the young Becker did on losing a tennis match.
He flatly denies it. "I don't think I ever cried. But it was worse than that. I got depressed. I wouldn't leave my room for days. I was my own worst critic. As I grew older, there was nothing I wouldn't do to win, even if it meant bending the rules, but that meant that if I did lose, knowing I had given everything, I eventually had to accept that the other guy played better. I thought, 'All right, I didn't commit a crime. The guy beat me 6-4 in the fifth. What can I do?'"
It is almost time for England's favourite German to leave, but before he does, let's just talk about that particular label. Does he like it? Does he recognise a dark subtext, to the effect that he's the best of a bad lot? A smile. "I know the list [of popular Germans] isn't very long here. But I feel very much at home in this country. My life changed in a dramatic way here, and you don't forget that. Also, my son [by his second wife, Dutch model Lilly Kerssenberg] was born here. I have a home in Wimbledon."
He was surprised, he adds, when his friend Franz Beckenbauer stirred up anti-German feeling during the World Cup by dismissing the England football team (not unreasonably, as it turned out) as one-dimensional. "He's usually a politician, so yes, I was surprised."
Beckenbauer it was who 10 years ago invited him on to the board of his beloved Bayern Munich, and he still sits on the club's finance committee. "Advising on tax matters?" I ask, a cheeky reference to his own well-publicised travails with the German tax authorities, but Becker plays my attempted winner with the deadest of rackets. "No," he says. "It is a very rich club. They don't rely on foreign investors. I go to meetings maybe four times a year, where Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer listen to our opinions..." And then ignore them? "Yes," he says with a big laugh, and cheerfully stands to have his photograph taken with Anas who, like me, and not a few others down the years, has been rather beguiled by the celebrated Becker charm.
Boris Becker is an ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. To donate or take part in a fund-raising event visit www.laureus.com
Boris Becker: The Life and Times
*Born: 22 November, 1967, Leimen, West Germany
*Nicknames: 'Boom Boom', 'Der Bomber' and 'Baron von Slam' – all products of his serve and volleying prowess.
*Turned professional: 1984
*Highest Singles ranking: 1 (28 January 1991) for 12 weeks
*Highest Doubles ranking: 6 (22 September 1986)
*Grand Slam titles: Australian Open 1991, 1996; Wimbledon 1985, 1986, 1989; US Open 1989
*Olympic titles: Men's Doubles 1992
*Total titles: 49 singles, 15 doubles
*Davis Cup team member 1985-89, 1991-92, 1995-99. Becker captained the German side to their maiden Davis Cup victory in 1988
*Career prize money: £16,169,264
*Records: In 1985, at age of 17, Becker smashed three Wimbledon records by defeating Kevin Curren in four sets to become the youngest player to win the men's title at the All-England club and both the first unseeded player and first German to become singles champion. He also reached a total of seven Wimbledon finals - a record he shares with Roger Federer and Pete Sampras
*Stats: Becker holds a match record of 163 wins to 40 defeats in Grand Slam singles tournaments - giving him a win percentage of 80.3 per cent. This is bettered in the male game by only a handful of players, including Bjorn Borg (89.8), Roger Federer (87.5), Rafael Nadal (86.2) and Andre Agassi (80.9).
*Becker's play was known for his huge serves, colossal forehand shots, penetrating volleys and diving saves.
*In 2003, Becker was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He is also a lifelong supporter of Bayern Munich and serves on the advisory board of the Bundesliga side.
*The 42-year-old has four children - Noah and Elias from his first marriage to Barbara Feltus, 10-year-old Anna and Amadeus from his current marriage to Dutch model Lilly Kressenberg.
*Becker is a regular on the small screen, and appeared as a team captain on sports quiz They Think It's All Over between 2005-06. He also regularly joins the BBC commentary team at Wimbledon and has launched his own online media platform, Boris Becker TV.
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