Boris still throws down aces but says Murray lacks killer instinct
'Britain's favourite German' tells Alan Hubbard about his passion for poker, Ballack and Bayern Munich
Sunday 11 October 2009
In his heyday, Boris Becker was the last man you'd call poker-faced – he was an expressive player, diving around the court and verbally giving John McEnroe as good as he got. And of course, he played many a game to love, not least in a broom cupboard under the stairs at a fashionable London restaurant, though he now keeps his cards close to his chest on the subject of that famously brief encounter.
"Bonking Boris", the red-tops tabbed him when he was putting himself about with the ladies. "Vat is diss bonking?" he famously asked during a Wimbledon press conference in the late 1980s when he was not as familiar with English tabloid vernacular as he is now.
Wimbledon's wild child has had his moments as he went from the tournament's youngest winner at 17 to Britain's favourite German (according to the BBC, whose commentary box he candidly illuminates every year).
Now he wants us to know that things have changed. He has settled down, married for the third time (to Dutch model Lilly Kessenberg), yet fallen in love again – with poker. As he prepared to join 350 other players at the tables in last week's leg of the Pokerstars.com European Poker Tour in London, he flexed his fingers in anticipation and declared: "Yes, this is my new passion. It takes me back to being 20 again. The poker tour is like a tennis tour, moving from city to city. It is very competitive. You need the same sort of discipline and mental application, studying the body language of your opponent. Stamina too.
"In tennis you need to know when to go in at the net. At the poker table [you need] to watch your opponent's moves and go for a quick point to clinch the match. I think most tennis players would have a poker player's mentality."
In that case, we ventured, would Andy Murray (left) make a good poker player? More to the point, will he ever win a Grand Slam? "That's a tough one to answer. The top places have been occupied by Federer and Nadal for some time and now along comes [Juan Martin] del Potro. What they all have is that necessary killer instinct, to make the most crucial points their best points. I think Andy has that in some tournaments, but for various reasons, once he's in the quarter-final, that killer instinct goes missing. It's all about the mental approach. Federer has it, Nadal has it and Del Potro has it. But Murray? I'm not sure yet.
"The consistency is the one thing that's absent from his CV, and it bothers him. But I like him very much. I like his character, he's a very opinionated guy and I think he will win a Grand Slam sometime in the future, but he's not there yet."
It was rainy days at Wimbledon that first brought Becker to poker. "I started playing when I was playing tennis, between matches – and all those rain-breaks at Wimbledon. I loved those interruptions because then I could play cards in the locker room."
With Pokerstars he has played in high-stakes tournaments in Las Vegas and Monte Carlo, so far winning over $40,000, though he went out early in London. "To be frank, I lose more often than I win. That's the nature of the game." Reputed to be worth £60 million , surely it can't be the cash that attracts him? He grins: "I have a new wife and three children to support [not to mention two ex-wives and homes in Miami, Zurich and Wimbledon] and they've all got open hands."
For 10 years he has also been a board member of Bayern Munich, and insists he isn't just a token celebrity. "I have opinions and I make them known to Franz Beckenbauer [the club president]." So he's a genuine fan? "Oh, much more than that. I think I know more about football than the average fan. I follow the Premier League avidly." His team is Chelsea. "One of the reasons is that I'm great friends with Michael Ballack. We live in the same street in Wimbledon. I really like the way he has made himself such an important part of the team."
As Becker approaches his 42nd birthday this month, there are silver threads in his once ginger mop. But as he continues to throw down the aces there are few better qualified to offer a view on why British tennis just cannot play its cards right and produce more good players. "A lot has to do with the tennis system you have. Everyone knows Murray did not come through the ranks of the LTA. The LTA is a good organisation and Wimbledon is a great tournament and you have fine facilities, but in some structural way you are not doing the right job.
"There must be something wrong when with all the advantages here, you do not produce top-50 players each year. I don't know why but give me a month to spend talking with the responsible people at the LTA and I would be able to tell you."
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