Boris Becker: 'The beautiful thing about being 17 is that you're really innocent and naïve'

Twenty years after his remarkable first Wimbledon triumph, Boris Becker tells Mike Rowbottom how he did it, and assesses this year's contenders and pretenders

Rafael Nadal, whose French Open win earlier this month at 19 so energised the world of tennis, turns his prodigious attentions to Wimbledon next week as he seeks to annex what he regards as "the world's most important tournament".

No one will understand better the impetuousness of the young Spaniard's desire than Boris Becker, the man who became Wimbledon's youngest winner 20 years ago when he was just 17. But the popular German, whose style owed more to Sturm und Drang than the swashbuckling approach which has swept Nadal into the limelight this season, definitively rules out the latest Grand Slam champion as one of the main challengers to the man aiming for a third successive SW19 title, Roger Federer.

"Not Nadal. No. I would see Federer's main challengers in Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick," Becker said, before adding swiftly, and with well practised concession: "And Tim Henman."

Becker's judgement has nothing to do with age; it is all about technique.

"The interesting thing about grass is that not many people feel really comfortable on it," he said. "On the clay court, yes, you have to play well, but if someone knows how to play on grass he's always going to be better in my opinion. And I think the three or four guys I've mentioned are naturally better.

"Nadal eventually will learn. Not this year, but I think in two, three years' time he will know how to play on grass. He's not satisfied with the fact that he is going to be always good on clay."

Becker, who will be undertaking his fourth year of commentary for the BBC at the Championships, believes Nadal can transform his grass-court chances by working on his left-handed serve.

"He doesn't use his left-hand serve at all yet on grass, but once he starts using it properly it's going to be a weapon that will change the whole game for him," Becker observed. "He moves well, he returns well. But the approach on grass is 'how can I win the point?' and on clay, it's 'how am I not going to miss the point?' Psychologically, that's the biggest change."

For now, however, Becker believes that Federer, the 23-year-old Swiss player who began to realise his huge potential by winning the Wimbledon title in 2003, is the man to beat, although he sounds a salutary note.

"You can never expect to win Wimbledon," he said. "Federer has won the tournament two times. He is the favourite, but you shouldn't expect to win."

He remains cautious, too, about whether Federer can match the record of seven singles wins held by Pete Sampras.

"Seven victories is tough," he said. "Federer's got two. He has the game and he has the youth to theoretically win five more in 10 years' time. But there's a whole lot of water down the river until he actually can do it.

"Federer is a very special player. He's a rare bird. I'd almost call him a genius, the way he plays, the way he wins matches. He's a pure talent who plays tennis the way it ought to be played. He should get much more credit than he gets. But people are realising he is an amazing player.

"He's not an outgoing personality. He's a nice guy. And people criticise him sometimes for being a nice guy. Excuse me, but what times are we living in?"

Becker's own status within these shores as a nice guy - on Monday, the BBC will mark the 20th anniversary of his first Wimbledon with a documentary entitled Boris Becker: Britain's Favourite German - is something he is naturally reticent about analysing. But he believes it may have something to do with simple familiarity.

"I'm myself," he said. "I can only be myself. I think that people like to say I'm quite honest about things, especially when I'm out on the court. And even when I'm in front of the mike, I speak my mind. I say what I think."

His memories of that startling victory two decades ago, which shifted tennis into a new era only a year after John McEnroe appeared to have brought his game to perfection, are still vivid.

"I have moments when it seems like it's been more than 20 years," he said. "And then I have flashbacks where it's like I played last weekend. I wouldn't remember every single point, but I would say the last game, the last serve, the match point, maybe the beginning, the walk on court. Those things stick out.

"The beautiful thing about being 17 is that you are really innocent and naïve. You don't think about a whole lot of things. So it's just, they tell you to go out there at two o'clock and you go out there at two o'clock and play. It doesn't faze you that you are too young or not supposed to win.

"The older you get, actually, the more you think about it, the more nervous you become. So the sooner you win the better just to decide whether you are good enough."

From a British perspective, this comment shoots out in two different directions - to the aspiring 19-year-old Andrew Murray, whose successful Queen's tournament this month was brought to a premature close by an ankle injury; and to the eternally hopeful 31-year-old, Henman, for whom that first, confirmatory Grand Slam still remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Becker has long grown used to the annual business of assessing home hopes for Wimbledon, with all its associated sense of quiet desperation. His thoughts on the subject are carefully weighted.

"Murray is certainly talented," he said. "He likes to play on grass. He played his first Davis Cup match recently and he won. So all the signs are good."

"Federer was better at this age, don't get me wrong. I think even Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick were better. But he's good. We shouldn't go overboard, but it's correct to respect what he has achieved so far."

Henman's position, he acknowledges, is an increasingly uncomfortable one. "From all the players, he wants to win more than anybody. And he does play well every year at Wimbledon. That's all you can ask for, and, you know, he's going to give it another try this year...

"He's in a group of players that have a chance. Nothing more, nothing less."

If Nadal is not yet in a similar position, he is not far away in Becker's reckoning.

"He is by far the best player at 19 of his generation," Becker said. "Now, if I look back, Stefan Edberg was very good. John McEnroe was good. Federer was good. Um... I was not bad. But Nadal is among that group. When you Grand Slam at 19 years old it puts you there automatically. He's very good for tennis."

Becker believes that France's own 19-year-old, Richard Gasquet, will also add to the game's lustre in years to come, and that their closely fought match in Paris was a precursor to other monumental meetings.

"Those two guys will play big finals in future," he said. "Gasquet is hungry. The success of someone your age makes you hungry because you realise that to win a Grand Slam is not impossible. So I would see Gasquet as a future champion."

So are we now witnessing a changing of the guard within the sport?

"I think no," Becker responded. "The names we know - the Federers, the Roddicks, the Hewitts and the Henmans - are the establishment right now. We've had times when tennis was a bit boring. I think we've passed those times, and tennis seems to become more and more important internationally now. Good?"

The last word arrived startlingly, like a second-serve ace. Interview over. Game, set and match Becker.

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