Time to praise the Becker phenomenon

Wimbledon's youngest men's singles champion will receive a unique award this evening
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The Independent Online

Boris Becker is due to be fêted by the Lawn Tennis Writers' Association at Wimbledon this evening to mark the Association's golden jubilee. So perhaps we should dispense with jokes concerning broom cupboard love and brushes with German tax collectors and remind ourselves of the man's impact on the sport.

Young Boris is now an older Boris, aged 34, a rookie on the senior Tour of Champions, which pitches up in London tomorrow for the Honda Challenge at the Royal Albert Hall. The sight of Becker in a veterans' arena is enough to make even his fellow thirty-somethings wonder where the time has flown since July 1985, when he dived into the record books as Wimbledon's youngest (17 years, 227 days) and first unseeded men's singles champion.

That Becker is available to receive the LTWA's 50th anniversary award in person is a bonus, particularly given the absence of Goran Ivanisevic, who was due to collect an award the LTWA presents annually after his astonishing triumph at Wimbledon last summer. The three Gorans are confined to barracks until next weekend, completing their basic training for national service in the Croatian army, although the Beeb hopes the one known as "Emergency Guy" will be given leave for Sunday's Sports Personality of the Year show.

Attendance, though desired, is not prerequisite for an LTWA award. Nor is a faultless personal life, a criterion that would disqualify the majority of candidates from every honour from the Nobel Prize down. Becker, ever a target for an insatiable German media, has attracted some lurid publicity since his last contest at Wimbledon, a fourth-round defeat to Pat Rafter, of Australia, in 1999. That evening, apparently, Becker's "poom-bah-boom" (his description in a Radio Times interview) with Angela Ermakova, a model, in a cupboard at a London restaurant, resulted in the birth of a daughter, Anna, and an alleged £2m settlement.

Becker's wife, Barbara, the mother of his sons, Noah Gabriel, seven, and Elias Balthasar, two, subsequently divorced him (the settlement is said to be £10m, plus their apartment in Florida and £4,000 per week maintenance), although their relationship remains strong enough for them to take holidays together.

Recent headlines told of a threatened four-year prison sentence unless Becker responded to a £10.3m tax demand from the German finance department concerning where he lived at the height of his career. The authorities alleged that he falsely declared Monte Carlo as his primary residence, instead of Germany. Evidence gathered by revenue officers included 210 volumes of newspaper cuttings, collected by an obsessive Becker fan, aged 75, detailing his hero's deeds and whereabouts on an almost daily basis.

While it is not the intention here to defend Becker in these matters, nor to apologise for him, it seems reasonable to suggest that the power of his game, combined with the force of his personality, made him such a good story for the best part of 16 years that any self-righteous tut-tutting by tennis reporters would be laughed out of court as hypocrisy.

That in itself hardly warrants Becker's selection for a unique British tennis writers' award. Other players, some still competing at the highest level, have accomplished more in terms of Grand Slam singles championships, if not popularity. Few, however, have made such a stunning entrance. Fewer still have had such a dramatic influence on the tennis industry. So what better time than now, as professional tennis begins to feel the pinch of recession along with other branches of sport and entertainment and business as a whole, to pay homage to the Becker phenomenon?

Ion Tiriac, a former competitor from Romania who turned himself into one of the sport's foremost entrepreneurs while playing up to his colourful character, reminded German tennis writers recently how times had changed. Asked if his Masters Series tournament in Stuttgart was likely to be sold to another city in another country, Tiriac sighed and shrugged. "First of all, my friends," he said, "you must understand there is no more Mr Becker."

Tiriac understands that only too well. He played a significant role in launching Becker's professional career and was his manager and mentor until they parted in 1993. Ivanisevic is one of his clients. "I think that day at Wimbledon [in 1985] changed the tennis game for the next 10 years," Tiriac says. "That day, all of us who work in tennis profited, and continued to profit, because it brought a new wind to tennis, a fresh image, a thing that nobody had before. Boris was fresh like a green lemon.

"We had superstars; we had crazy guys; we had talented people; we had McEnroe; we had Connors; we had Borg. But we never had so much power, and we never had a representative of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, economical powers in Europe. And that benefited all of us."

Becker benefited from the boom, but he also paid an emotional toll, a prospect Tiriac claimed to have anticipated. "That's the reason that I pulled him out of all the tournaments in the next month and a half or two [after the first win at Wimbledon]," Tiriac recounted on the 10th anniversary of his protégé's breakthrough. "We just talked. We spoke for hours and hours and hours a day. We talked about the sky, about the earth, about women, about men, about business, about kids, about school, about anything we could speak about, because he didn't know that his life had changed, and I knew what was going to happen."

The pupil found out soon enough. Throughout Becker's career there was an undercurrent of restlessness. "Boris is a great character," Tiriac said, "but he was never a simple human being, even on the court. I think that his character generated his game. He probably liked to challenge himself. If Freud was around he probably would write another book saying that the man always searches for himself."

Becker won 49 singles titles, six of them Grand Slam championships, three at Wimbledon, where he finished runner-up four times, and he inspired the first two of his nation's three Davis Cup triumphs, those in 1988 and 1989. Something Becker said in defeat also became an integral part of his legacy.

Having successfully defended the Wimbledon title in 1986, Becker lost to Peter Doohan, a little-known Australian, in the second round in 1987. "I lost a tennis match," was Becker's response. "It was not a war; nobody died."

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