German tennis player
In 1985, Boris Becker became the youngest player to win the men's singles championship at Wimbledon. He
was also the first German to do so, and the first unranked player. In truth, Becker was used to being the youngest. He had started playing when he was only eight years old, and by age 11 he was playing in adult divisions. Still, it was a grand moment, and turned Becker into an international sensation, and a national hero. While Becker continued to find success on the court, winning four more Grand Slam tournaments and an Olympic gold medal, he also weathered difficult slumps and at times found himself the object of controversy and contempt. Through it all, however, he has remained Germany's most famous athlete, and a symbol of grace and good manners in a sport that has not always been known for either.
Boris Becker was born in Liemen, West Germany, to Karl-Heinz and Elvira Becker. His father, an architect, saw an early promise in his son and was active in constructing a tennis center near their home. Young Boris began playing competitively at the age of 8. Actually, Boris was not the best boy at the center, and at one point he was relegated to hitting with the girls, including a young Steffi Graf . But at age 11, he was good enough to start competing in the adult divisions. By that time he had acquired a coach, Gunther Bosch, who would one day take him to Wimbledon. In 1984, he also acquired a manager, Ion Tiriac, also a world-renowned coach. He too played a large role in Becker's future success.
In 1984 Becker entered his first Wimbledon competition, but a torn ligament soon ended his chances. The next year things went considerably better. At age 17, he appeared at Wimbledon again, alongside such established figures as Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe , and Rod Laver . To universal amazement, Becker found himself facing Kevin Curren in the finals. After beating Curren, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, and 6-4, Boris Becker became the youngest champion in Wimbledon history.
The result was electric, creating an international sensation. Back in West Germany, Becker became a national idol. As he told a New York Times reporter, "I'm the first German, and I think this will change tennis in Germany. They never had an idol, and now maybe they have one." While some felt Becker's was overstating the case, there was no doubt that Germans were delighted, and thousands of them turned out to welcome him back to Leiman to the sounds of "Boom Boom Boris," a hit rock song based on Becker's nickname. At the same time, Becker was developing a reputation for coolness under pressure, in contrast to some of his more volatile colleagues on the court. One Wimbledon victim summed it up: "He just plays, hits the ball, wins, says thank you and goodbye."
Ups and Downs
In 1986, Becker successfully defended his title against Ivan Lendl, efficiently knocking him off in three sets: 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. "I saw a little bit in Ivan's face that he didn't know what to do with me," Becker told a Sports Illustrated reporter. At that point, reporters could still write that no mortal man could beat Becker, who had only lost his first Wimbledon competition because of an injury. He was still the golden boy of modern tennis.
The next year, 1987, put a little tarnish on the Becker shine. In January, he lost to Wally Masur, ranked 71st, at the Australian Open. An unusually bitter Becker hit balls toward the umpire and out of the stand, broke three rackets, and even spat water toward the umpire, earning $2,000 in fines. Two days after the match, he fired his coach, Gunther Bosch, who had been with him since childhood—an emotional breakup that left him feeling drained and bitter. Bosch began speaking to the press, often casting Becker in a negative light. At the same time, he took up with 22-year-old Benedicte Courtin, hiding out with her at a $2,600-a-night villa that caused some grumbling in the press about his high-flying lifestyle. Then the unthinkable: he lost in the second round at Wimbledon to an unknown, Peter Doohan. The press began to savage him. "I didn't lose a war. Nobody died. Basically, I just lost a tennis match," commented Becker, but he was shaken by the harshness of the attacks.
The next couple of years were somewhat better. Becker took seven titles, and captained Germany to their first Davis Cup victory. 1989 was even more satisfying. In July, he reclaimed his Wimbledon title, knocking off defending champ Stefan Edberg 6-0, 7-6, 6-4. That same month he helped the German team take another Davis Cup win in Munich by beating Andre Agassi , the man who had blatantly insulted Becker's beloved Wimbledon. To top it all off, in September Becker won the U.S. Open for the first time, besting rival Ivan Lendl. The International Tennis Federation awarded Becker the title of World Champion that year.
Controversy Finds the Wunderkind
Having regained his championship status, Becker seemed to gain a newfound confidence. To replace Bosch he hired an unknown Australian named Bob Brett, saying he was not interested in finding another mentor or father figure. He also began speaking out more to the press about public issues, saying that the West German government was spending too much on armaments and not enough on the homeless, and saying that reunification with East Germany was progressing a little too quickly. Then in 1992 he declined to help Berlin in its bid for the 2000 Olympics, saying he feared it might revive his fellow citizen's fantasies about a master race. German fans were sometimes stunned at the views of the man who had waved the German flag at the Davis Cup and had been marketed as a clean-cut, patriotic German youth.
|1967||Born November 22, in Liemen, West Germany|
|1975||Begins playing competitive tennis|
|1976||Begins training with Gunther Bosch|
|1984||Begins working with Ion Tiriac|
|1984||Enters Wimbledon competition for first time; leaves due to injury|
|1985||Becomes youngest player to win Wimbledon championship|
|1986||Wins Wimbledon again|
|1987||Fires Gunther Bosch|
|1988||Helps win West Germany's first Davis Cup victory|
|1989||Reclaims Wimbledon title; hires Bob Brett as new trainer|
|1991||Begins dating Barbara Feltus|
|1993||Marries Barbara Feltus, December 17|
|1994||Son, Noah Gabriel, born|
|1997||Retires from Grand Slam tournament competition|
|1999||Retires from professional tennis|
|1999||Son, Elias Balthasar, born|
|1999||Russian model gives birth to Anna, illegitimate daughter of Boris Becker; subsequent paternity test proves he is the father|
|2000||In December, separates from wife, Barbara Feltus; later files for divorce|
|2002||Is convicted of tax evasion, given two-year suspended sentence, in October|
In another area of his life, the controversy turned truly ugly. Since Courtin, Becker had been linked with a number of women, including Olympic skater Katarina Witt . But in 1991 he met and fell in love with Barbara Feltus, a beautiful German-American model who also happened to be black. Hate mail and ugly taunts from neo-Nazis sometimes forced the couple to flee Germany and hide out in Monaco. "Sometimes within 15 minutes I am someone who cannot get served because I'm black," Feltus told a German reporter. "The next minute I'm Frau Becker, treated like a queen. Sometimes, I find both awful." When the couple appeared nude on the cover of Stern magazine, as a protest against racism, many in the staid German public were appalled. Despite these pressures, the couple married on December 17, 1993. Together they have two sons, Noah Gabriel, born in 1994, and Elias Balthasar, born in 1999.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1984, 1986, 1990||Quarterfinals, Australian Open|
|1985-86, 1989||First place, Wimbledon|
|1986, 1990||Semifinals, U.S. Open|
|1987, 1989, 1991||Semifinals, French Open|
|1988-89||Co-victor, Davis Cup|
|1988, 1990-91||Finals, Wimbledon|
|1989||Finals, U.S. Open|
|1989||Awarded title of World Champion, International Tennis Federation|
|1991||First place, Australian Open|
|1991||Semifinals, French Open|
|1992||Gold medal, Barcelona Olympics (with Michael Stitch)|
Where Is He Now?
The new millennium has not been very kind to Boris Becker. In late 2000, his marriage fell apart in a very public way, just as Germans had grown to accept, and even admire it. After the outcry in the late 1990s, Boris and Barbara had emerged as a glamour couple, a visible symbol of tolerance and racial accord in a country sometimes plagued by racist violence. But in November of 2000, Becker told his wife he wanted a separation. A week later, she flew to Miami, where she filed for custody of the children and a generous financial settlement. The reason was a Russian model by the name of Angela Ermakova who claimed to have given birth to Becker's daughter, named Anna, a charge soon confirmed by a paternity test. Then in 2002, Becker was convicted of tax evasion for keeping an apartment in Munich while claiming exclusive residence in the tax haven of Monaco. He was given a suspended sentence of two years, and a fine of 500,000 euros, which left him a free man, but with a criminal record.
It was a bleak moment for the man who'd burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old with a winning smile and composure well beyond his years. Friends said that for the first time, Becker had been able to live the high life, after retiring from tennis, and that he was going through a kind of delayed adolescence. While it was clearly a darker side to Becker, some would always remember the bright lad who showed up the giants at Wimbledon when he was only 17. Even now, he remains the most famous sports name in Germany—a hero in a country that often was short on them.
While Becker was finding love off the court, his career on it was suffering. "After '91 I was tired of tennis," Becker acknowledged to a Sports Illustrated reporter in 1993. "I was tired of all the straining and the doing. I had all the success I wanted." The tiredness showed, and in 1992 he'd slipped to a number 10 ranking before rallying at the end of the year. He did rally enough to win the Australian Open and to take a gold medal in doubles tennis at the 1992 Olympics, with an old rival, Michael Stitch. But after 1991 Grand Slam tournament titles continually eluded him, and in 1997, after losing a quarterfinal match at Wimbledon, he announced that he was retiring from tournament competition. "I feel very relieved," he said. "I had a great run here. I won a number of Grand Slams … and now that I've made my decision, I feel very comfortable." Two years, later he retired from professional tennis altogether.
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"Convicted tax evader Becker gets two-year suspended sentence." Europe Intelligence Wire (October 25, 2002)
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"A fallen idol." Asia Africa Intelligence Wire (October 30, 2002)
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Kirkpatrick, Curry. "A smash hit on his home court." Sports Illustrated (August 12, 1985): 28.
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Sketch by Robert Winters