Wimbledon '95: and the one that got away

Ten years ago he became Wimbledon's youngest ever champion, and an international superstar. Two more titles followed, but Boris Becker's days of domination now seem a thing of the past. John Roberts tells his story
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The Independent Online
The sight of the strapping Boris Becker rising from his seat to greet her at the Wimbledon champions' dinner in 1985 prompted the wife of the chairman to turn to the young German's mother and remark upon his height.

"Is he six one, six two?" "No," Mrs Becker responded, "6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4."

Apocryphal, perhaps, but even Buzzer Hadingham, the chairman on that momentous day in the history of the All England Club, has dined out on the story. What is certain is that the wunderkind grew and grew as a player and as a personality, and has experienced to the full the joys and torments his fame provoked.

It is hard to imagine that 10 years have elapsed since Becker, aged 17 and seven months, defeated Kevin Curren in the final and became Wimbledon's youngest, and only unseeded, men's singles champion; although the evidence is there when one studies his face, somewhat careworn beneath designer stubble, and compares it to the fresh, callow look of "Boom-Boom's" exciting early days.

"More than a veteran, I feel like a middle-aged man," he said when competing in Milan in February. And a calf muscle injury has caused him to limp through his progress to the Perry gates this week.

Becker's initial triumph was all the more startling since it followed the explosive period of John McEnroe's turbulent genius (interrupted by a resurgent Jimmy Connors in 1982) and the unflappable Bjorn Borg's astonishing five-year reign from the baseline.

An Italian colleague recalls the reaction of a cashier on the first floor of Dino's restaurant in Kensington. "The boy with red hair," she said excitedly. "He was in every night cutting spaghetti with his coach."

In Becker's home town, Leimen, near Heidelberg, bagels shaped in a B were on sale, and the members of the Blau-Weiss Tennis Club, where he learned to play, gathered in front of a television set and watched an event which had formerly seemed improbable, the coronation of a German Wimbledon champion.

"I think that day at Wimbledon changed the tennis game for the next 10 years," says Ion Tiriac, the sharp-witted Romanian with the brooding moustache who was Becker's mentor and manager for the bulk of the player's career. "That day, all of us who work in tennis profited, and are still profiting today, because it brought a new wind to tennis, a fresh image, a thing that nobody had before. He 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 had 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's spectacular breakthrough prompted Tiriac to worry about the youngster's future. "That's the reason that I pulled him out of all the tournaments in the next month and a half or two," he recounts. "We just talked. We spoke for hours and 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."

On the court, Becker continued to flourish, expanding interest in tennis in Germany beyond expectation. He followed his 1985 success by frustrating Ivan Lendl in the 1986 final and won the Wimbledon championship for a third time by defeating Stefan Edberg in straight sets in 1989.

Although some observers perceived a degree of arrogance in Becker's manner, he endeared himself to the public at large with his response to a second- round defeat by Peter Doohan, a little-known Australian, in 1987: "I lost a tennis match - it was not a war; nobody died."

Becker went on to become the world No 1, winning every major title with the exception of the French Open, whose slow clay courts demand a patience not always apparent in players with an attacking style, and inspiring Germany to success in the Davis Cup.

Long before the Grand Slam titles dried up after his victory at the 1991 Australian Open, however, his philosophies and enthusiasms became susceptible to changes of direction, apparently influenced by the particular interests of various companions.

At one point, for example, he expressed disenchantment with the business side of tennis, saying he would have no more to do with the endorsement syndrome which had multiplied his earnings from prize money by countless millions. Later, revising his views, he continued to wear sponsors' patches on his kit and began to talk like a potential entrepreneur.

He would also become embroiled in controversy, once claiming there was drug abuse in the sport without being able to substantiate the view. On another occasion he admitted to having indulged in gamesmanship during vital points in a match, and at Wimbledon last year he was caught receiving medical treatment after leaving the court for a toilet break.

His relationship with his compatriot Michael Stich, who defeated him in the 1991 Wimbledon final, has been ambivalent, their differences often manifesting in matters arising from Becker's participation - or non-participation - in the Davis Cup.

Since informing Gunther Bosch at the 1987 Australian Open that he did not need a coach "24 hours a day", Becker has been advised in turn by the Australian Bob Brett, the Yugoslav Niki Pilic, the Czech Tomas Smid, the Austrian Gunther Bresnik, the German Eric Jelen and, currently, the American Nick Bollettieri, Andre Agassi's former guide.

The long association with Tiriac was terminated in July, 1993, and Becker is now represented by the German, Dr Axel Meyer-Wolden, the promoter of the Grand Slam Cup in Munich. Becker considers that his career was given new impetus and a healthy perspective by his marriage to Barbara Feltus in December, 1993, and the birth of their son, Noah Gabriel, a month afterwards. "I'm better than the Boris Becker who won Wimbledon three times," he said in California in March.

Tiriac has continued to prosper. Best known in his playing days as Ilie Nastase's crafty doubles partner - and fond of telling how he climbed over the Wimbledon gates and took a peek at the Centre Court on his first visit as a hungry young man - he has grown into one of the sport's great impresarios.

The promoter of high-class tournaments in Germany, he is involved in several commerical projects in Romania, including the directorship of a bank which bears his name, and represents Goran Ivanisevic, twice a Wimbledon finalist.

Tiriac reflects on the way things have turned out since that glorious moment which launched his great protege. "Boris changed completely from every point of view," he says. "He changed gradually ever single year, every single month. That is normal, up to a certain point. Now - did he change for the better, or did he change for the worse? I cannot judge. I was always too close to the problem to do that.

"I have my philosophy on life, and definitely there are a lot of things that I wanted to be a little different than they are today. And maybe I'm wrong and he's right.

"My understanding is that he's doing very well. And for what it's worth, he's going to be one of the biggest names ever. It's a pity that he is not going to be the biggest name ever, because he could have been.

"He had so much power then, and so much facility to hit a tennis ball. If he would just have simplified his game the way he's doing now, when it's a little bit too late, then he would have won possibly more than anybody I know of the modern times, because nobody is going to match Emerson and Borg any more.

"Boris is a great character, but he was never a simple human being, even on the court. That's where he was half a masochist. Tell him to play Connors serve- and-volley straight away, and after hours of tennis from the baseline he'll come and say, 'You see, I did it, didn't I?' He never understood that he could have beaten somebody much easier by playing the right game, and then he would have been prepared for the next day, and so on.

"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. Very lately, maybe - though I doubt it strongly - he has found who he is."