Remembering Boris Becker: 17 Again...
It seems inconceivable now that a 17 year old could win a Grand Slam title. But on a sunlit afternoon at Wimbledon in 1985, Boris Becker did just that and his life changed forever
The open-topped Mercedes jeep was slow moving and as the ‘Hitman from Heidelberg’ came into view more than 15,000 people started screaming, including those who had known the hero for years. Boris Becker, and his coach, Günther Bosch, began to accept bouquets of flowers, sign autographs and shake hands along the four-kilometre ride into Leimen, a town of 28 sports clubs including Blau-Weiss.
For five days, every German had read about Becker’s exploits since his historic triumph on Centre Court; from his 18 interviews the day after, to his stay at the Old Beach Hotel in Monte-Carlo, where his manager, Ion Tiriac, “added an extra zero to every deal”, his arrival in Germany, and his morning in Freiburg, where a doctor examined his ankle. “I thought only a few hundred would turn up when I came home,” says Becker, 30 years on.
It was at the Town Hall, a 200-year-old castle, where Karl-Heinz Becker attends council meetings that he, his wife, Elvira, and his son look down from a balcony out onto a sea of banners — ‘Leimen Grüßt Boris’ — and German celebration. Songs written in Becker’s honour play out from a loud speaker into the square; the local mayor presents him the ‘Ring of Honour’ and a golden record from the rock group Deep Purple; local business thrives. Councillors want to name the indoor courts after their famous son. During the festivities, Becker drinks orange juice as champagne flows freely.
Afterwards at Blau-Weiss, his local tennis club established in 1964, Erich Fritsch, the headmaster at Helmholtz grammar school, asks to have a quick chat.
“Are you sure you want to pursue a career as a tennis professional?” asks Fritsch.
“Maybe you’d be better coming back to school?”
“Herr Fritsch,” says Becker. “I’ve just won Wimbledon. I realise something can still happen, but…”
“So you’re not coming back? I just have to hear it officially.”
“No, I’m not coming back.”
Tiriac had negotiated Becker’s leave from school the year before, but his parents had wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer.
Boris Breskvar, who had coached Becker for 10 years from the age of six, had immediately recognised his fighting qualities in 1974. He’d also noticed in those first lessons that Becker would chase balls and dive like a football goalkeeper in a bid to keep a rally alive. Breskvar recalled shortly before his passing in 2012, “Boris would lunge and dive for everything. I was worried he would injury himself, so I ordered jump mats for the indoor tennis courts. He was a born competitor.”
When Breskvar did not want to travel extensively in 1984, Tiriac’s attention turned to his old Davis Cup teammate, 36-year-old Bosch, who was also working for the German Tennis Federation. Together, they not only developed Becker’s physical presence, through weight training, but also calmed and channelled his fiery personality in the right direction, and improved his movement with a variety of ball sports.
The celebration shuffle, the all-or-nothing pickups were nothing new, and by 1985, after eight months on tour, the tennis world was beginning to take note of the 6’1”, 13-and-a-half stone Becker. He first competed on the grass of Beckenham in early June, following a humbling at the hands of Mats Wilander at Roland Garros. On the cricket outfield, where he wandered freely; played cards and chess, and listened to rock music on his Walkman from the confines of the clubhouse, Becker honed his game away from the spotlight.
One week later, and eight days before the world’s biggest tournament, Becker was front and centre. A new force. Johan Kriek, no mean fighter on grass, offered a prediction, “If he plays the way he did today, he will win Wimbledon.”
Kriek who had lost The Queen’s Club final to Becker 6-2, 6-3, added, “It’s very difficult to read his serve, which he strikes with great force. He makes incredible gets and has great touch. Nobody will be able to beat him on grass.”
Mats Wilander, who recalls he was playing in Ireland, says 30 years on, “Nobody outside the United Kingdom saw the Queen’s final. But every player knew he had won by the time of first ball at Wimbledon.”
On the back of his first tour-level title, Becker had trained with Anders Jarryd, Joakim Nystrom, Wilander, plus Andreas Maurer and Michael Westpha. “The journey was anything but easy,” says Becker, 30 years on. As the World No. 20, Germany’s best hope since Wilhelm Bungert had the attention of every fan.
There was nowhere to hide at the All England Club. Hank Pfister, who lost to Becker in a two-day encounter 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 on Centre Court, says, “I thought he was playing above his abilities against me to win. There were 124 other guys, I could have preferred to play. He was confident to the point of arrogance.” Matt Anger, Tracy Austin’s boyfriend, was next in the firing line, 6-0, 6-1, 6-3. “It is one of my least favourite memories at Wimbledon,” says Anger. “Boris dominated our match. He was better at each phase and never let me even get started. I felt like a tidal wave had come over me.”
In the third round, six former Wimbledon champions — Don Budge, Lew Hoad, Budge Patty, Manuel Santana, Vic Seixas, Stan Smith — nodded approvingly from the gallery as Becker broke back on two occasions when World No. 8 Nystrom served for victory in a two-day 3-6, 7-6, 6-1, 4-6, 9-7 struggle.
The drama grew.
Spectators yelled out Becker’s name between points and fans peered under the canvas on Court 14, trying to catch a glimpse of the teenage sensation. The umpire continually asked for silence, but then there were gasps.
During the 12th game of the fourth set, Becker took a tumble on the baseline. Hobbling to the net, he motioned with his right hand to Tim Mayotte, who stood on the baseline. The Stanford graduate had beaten Becker 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 in the semi-finals of the recent Kent Championships at Beckenham. It was time to hand Mayotte the fourth-round match.
“Boris moved to shake my hand, thinking he couldn’t continue,” says Mayotte. “But Tiriac, or someone else, encouraged him not to.” Tiriac, behind dark glasses, rose and called out, in German, “Three minutes, three minutes. Time out.” The chair umpire was oblivious. Amidst the commotion, Becker sat down on his chair. “The critical thing that I remember is that when Boris went down, it took a very long time for the trainer to get through the crowd that surrounded the court,” recalls Mayotte. “Perhaps 20 minutes.”
ATP trainer Bill Norris waded his way onto the court, strapped up Becker’s ankle and gave him anti-inflammatories. Mayotte practised his serve. “After his ankle was strapped, the match didn’t turn,” recalls Mayotte. “It was hard fought all the way. I was amazed that that he was able to move so well after having such a bad fall.
“People thought I got a bad deal because of the long delay, but I never felt that way. It was a great match. I recall having a break point to serve for the match in the fourth set. I hit a great return and he hit a mis-hit half volley. That was my best chance.” Becker won 6-3, 4-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2 to become the first 17 year old to reach the last eight since Bjorn Borg in 1973.