For Boris Becker, walking out to play on Wimbledon’s Centre Court for the first time was an almost religious experience. ‘It was a Monday afternoon, it was cloudy, and it was quiet – eerily quiet,’ Becker recalls of his first match in that hallowed space, 30 years ago this month. ‘And I thought, “This is how I feel when I go into church and pray”.’
It was the first round of the 1985 championships, and Becker’s opponent, Hank Pfister, was not alone in assuming the unseeded 17-year-old German outsider wouldn’t progress far in that year’s tournament. Less than two weeks later, Becker left Centre Court as Wimbledon champion – the youngest ever winner of the men’s singles title.
It fired the starting gun on a remarkable career that saw him rise to the rank of world number one, racking up six major singles titles, 13 Masters Series wins, five elite indoor victories and an Olympic gold medal. And now, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that remarkable fortnight in W19, Becker has written a book, Boris Becker’s Wimbledon, that serves both as an autobiography and a love letter to the world’s greatest tennis tournament.
‘It’s the story of 30 years of me and my sport,’ says Becker, now 47. ‘And I used Wimbledon as my journey, as obviously it was the most important tournament for me, and it also happens to be the most important tournament in tennis. And it’s where I live today [Becker has a home within volleying distance of the All England Tennis Club]. So it’s a proper journey – from where I started to where I ended up.’
Does it feel like 30 years? ‘Sometimes it feels like it happened yesterday,’ he says. ‘And then I have moments when it seems a century ago.’
After that first Wimbledon victory, Becker received a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Liemen, with 40,000 people flocking to see him tour the streets in an open-topped Mercedes. ‘People who had known me for 17-and-a-half years were all of a sudden screaming my name,’ he writes in the book. ‘Perhaps because they knew I was gone.’
‘It was frightening in a way,’ he tells Weekend. ‘I was young, I’d come from a small town where I knew everyone. And then you go back and people are lining the streets to see you. You do feel weird. But that’s what it was, and I couldn’t stop it.’
During that same trip home, the principal of Becker’s school took him to one side and asked him if he was absolutely sure he didn’t want to come back and finish his studies. His mother, says Becker, remains convinced he made the wrong decision. ‘If you ask her today – she’s 80 this year – she still says she regrets she wasn’t strong enough to make her son finish school,’ he laughs.
Still, it’s fair to say Boris Becker – whose killer serve earned him the nickname ‘Boom Boom’ – went on to do kind of okay. He won Wimbledon twice more and was runner-up a further four times. For three years in a row, Becker faced Stefan Edberg in the final, beating him once and losing twice during one of sport’s all-time great rivalries. ‘It was very intense,’ says Becker. ‘Personally, I’ve always liked Stefan, and that made the rivalry more difficult for me, because I play better against players I don’t like.’
On retiring from the professional circuit in 1999, Becker launched his own tennis racquet and clothing line, before joining the BBC’s Wimbledon commentary team. In 2002, a court in Munich sentenced him to two years’ probation for tax evasion; Becker had been fighting the charges for seven years, during which time his first wife, the actress Barbara Feltus, had filed for divorce after details emerged of her husband’s tryst with Russian model Angela Ermakowa in the broom cupboard of a London restaurant.
Today, Becker – redefining sports casual in a sharp blue suit, open-necked shirt and white trainers – is the first to admit he didn’t always handle his stratospheric success well. ‘Of course you lose it, of course you fall into the traps, of course you make mistakes,’ he says. ‘I don’t think I did too bad, but I had my moments of insanity, where I lost my mind. We’re not machines – we’re human beings.’
In 2001, Becker acknowledged paternity of a child, Anna, from his one-night stand with Ermakowa, and successfully fought for joint custody of his daughter in 2007. He also has three boys – Noah and Elias, from his marriage to Feltus, and Amadeus, his five-year-old son with Dutch model Sharley ‘Lilly’ Kerssenberg, who he married in 2009. So are there any future tennis pros in the making?
‘I encourage them to get involved in sport,’ he says. ‘Not necessarily tennis, but play for a club, play for a team, do something active. My eldest son is pretty good at tennis and, a couple of years ago, he said, “Dad, I actually think I can beat you now”. I hadn’t played in years, but we went along and played on the clay, which is my worst surface. Six-love later, he said, “I can’t believe it, I couldn’t win a game against you”. I said, “Son, I was the best in the world at this game. I really know what I’m doing!”
In December 2013, Becker was announced as the new Head Coach for the world’s then number two, Novak Djokovic. A little over six months later, Djokovic claimed the world number one ranking after beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. Federer’s coach? A certain Stefan Edberg.
‘It’s just another story you couldn’t invent,’ says Becker. ‘I’m in my corner with Team Djokovic, and in the other corner is my toughest rival, coaching one of the greatest players of all time. It was unbelievable. It was like a movie.
‘Before the match, Federer is talking with Edberg in one corner, I’m talking with Novak, and I’m thinking, “Who’s going out there? Am I playing Stefan?” It was’ – that word again – ‘eerie.’
Watching Djokovic lift the trophy was, says Becker, ‘by far the most emotional tennis moment in years for me’. And a big part of that was down to the location – on that 41x22 metres of grass in south west London that, three decades on, still feels like a holy place to its youngest ever champion.
‘I arrived at Wimbledon as a very innocent young teenager,’ says Becker, ‘and 30 years later, not only have I won it three times, played in seven finals and commentated on 12 finals, I’m coaching the Wimbledon champion, and I call Wimbledon village my home. So I’ve really come full circle.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 11, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend