‘Winning Wimbledon at 17 opened doors I never knew existed’: Boris Becker recalls his career-defining triumph… 35 years on
- Boris Becker’s life changed when he won Wimbledon 35 years ago aged 17
- Becker said that life came at him fast in the months after his brilliant triumph
- He recalls also wanting to create a good image for the re-emerging Germany
Boris Becker ponders for a second what it was like to win Wimbledon aged 17, and then conjures up an image: ‘It was like being the first man on Mars.’
Thirty five years have passed since the ginger-haired teenager christened ‘Boom Boom’ was blasted into space on a mission fraught with both excitement and danger.
The age of the tennis wunderkind was launched. ‘There was no story board for it,’ recalls Becker, seated beside the rooftop court at the Thames-side apartment block which has been home through the lockdown.
It has been 35 years since German Boris Becker won Wimbledon at the tender age of 17
Becker holds aloft the Wimbledon trophy, celebrating a four-set victory over Kevin Curren
‘What happened has informed the rest of my life. I don’t think anyone could really understand what it was like.’
Life came fast, and within a few months the pressure had begun to take a toll. He reveals that at the US Open which followed he was actually grateful when he was knocked out of the fourth round: ‘I was on course to play John McEnroe in the quarters and it was being built up like the Super Bowl. I was glad I lost because it was getting too much and I needed a rest.’
Over the next fortnight’s phantom Wimbledon Becker will pay several visits to the All England Club, where he will be a studio guest during several of the BBC shows being scheduled to fill the void.
It is the place responsible for giving him a high enough profile to have the distinction of being instantly recognisable just by his first name – at least until another colourful Boris came along the in the shape of the Prime Minister.
‘Occasionally I see a headline with Boris in it and wonder what have I been up to now?’ he smiles. ‘Ironically it’s not even a German name’.
Becker felt responsible to promote a good image of his re-emerging country with the win
As if winning Wimbledon at 17 was not extraordinary enough, it came with the added significance of him feeling responsible to promote a good image of his re-emerging country. One memory of that heady summer is feeling uncomfortable at the media associating his game with ‘Blitzkrieg’.
Among those who avidly followed his progress was man-of-the-moment Jurgen Klopp, a lifelong tennis follower.
Becker soared to prominence when the game had never been more sexy, perhaps even more so than in this era of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic.
There are parallels with 1985 in that another great threesome who had driven the sport forward were at the back end of their powers: Borg, McEnroe and Connors (in Borg’s case retired already).
Nightclubs were still frequented and players all stayed in central London during Wimbledon, rather than being billeted with their large entourages in private houses around SW19.
For his stay in the capital that year Becker resided at the old Londonderry hotel in South Kensington, accompanied only by coach Gunther Bosch and his moustachioed manager Ion Tiriac, who drove him round in his Mercedes.
The 17 year-old Becker had only left school the previous summer, and not long given up his other preferred sports. His fast-improving results had already propelled him towards the top 30 and he was increasingly talked about within the game, if not among the general public.
Becker was known for his power, with the nickname ‘Boom Boom’ being attributed to him
‘Vijay Amritraj (the Indian player) came up with Boom Boom, because he had not seen anyone hit the ball harder than me. I was always naturally strong and had done a lot of swimming when I was younger, played basketball and was at regional level in youth soccer,’ he says.
Power was only part of the story, as his vaunted serve was also the product of superb technique. He displays his Anglophilia in describing it: ‘Some of it was to do with how I could snap my wrist, a bit like a bowler in cricket. My serve and my other shots became very accurate as well as heavy.’
Unseeded and largely unheralded, he scythed through a series of top grass court players to win the preceding tournament at Queen’s, where he beat Johan Kriek in the final. Still, not everyone believed it when the South African predicted afterwards that this young German was going to win Wimbledon.
‘I wasn’t really aware that he had said that because my English was not so good at the time, but I do remember going to the All England to practice on the Tuesday, and that everyone was looking at me. It was the first time I noticed that other players were coming to see how I practised, and that made me feel good.’
He was ranked 20 for Wimbledon and still unseeded. While Kriek was later anointed with the wisdom of Solomon for his prophesy, Becker happily admits that he should never even have reached the Championships final, and that luck played its part.
‘I played Joakim Nystrom in the third round on the old Court One. He twice served for the match but I ended up winning 9-7 in the fifth.
Becker ended up enjoying dinner at San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge during his London stay
‘Then I definitely should have lost against Tim Mayotte in the next round. In the middle of the fourth set I twisted my ankle badly, went down and panicked. I was going to give up but Tiriac and Bosch were screaming at me to call for the trainer to give me some time.
‘I was at the net but Tim was on the baseline, if he had been at the net I would have shaken hands there and then. I called for the trainer who took 15 minutes to arrive because we were playing out on Court 16. He gave me a painkiller and some treatment, I won the tiebreak and survived.’
By now he had adopted the routine of eating at Princess Diana’s favourite restaurant, San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge, during the evenings. Always tomato and Mozarella starter, followed by steak and pasta.
In the semis he was losing to Sweden’s Anders Jarryd before rain interrupted the match in the evening. ‘We came back on Saturday lunchtime and suddenly Anders couldn’t put the ball in the court any more.’
The final was against Kevin Curren, the rangy South African. ‘Kevin had beaten McEnroe and Connors in straight sets to get there but a big thing was that he had most of Friday and Saturday to think about his big chance. I was mentally helped by the fact that I didn’t really have much time to think about the final. On the Saturday night I dreamt vividly of holding the trophy over my head, so I woke up smiling, I wasn’t nervous but I could see Kevin was very itchy.’
Leading two sets to one, he broke and served for the match.
‘I only got nervous when I served for it. The crowd was screaming and I could hear them, which is a bad sign, you should be so focussed you can shut it out. I was shaking and I double faulted. Then I had three big serves to get to 40-15 and the screams got louder and I double faulted again. I prayed for one more first serve and won it with a three quarter ace.’
After the initial joy it did not take long for him to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened.
Becker went on to claim six Grand Slam titles, and reach four other Major finals in his career
‘It hit me when I walked off the court and the President of Germany, Richard Von Weizsacker, gave me a big hug, he was standing there with my parents. I realised this was more than just a tennis match.
‘My parents came over for the semi-final and my mother brought a dinner jacket just in case, for the Champions Dinner. Nothing personal but I was nervous I would have to dance with Martina (Navratilova, ladies’ champion) but they had stopped it by then.’
A second wave of understanding what had happened only arrived the following weekend.
‘We flew to Monaco on the Monday night and the following day Ion sat me down and tried to explain to me how my life was going to change. I thought he was talking gibberish. It was only when I went back to my hometown of Leimen on the Saturday that I realised.
‘There are only 10,000 people who live there but there were 50,000 lining the streets. We went to the tennis club, there was huge security. My friends couldn’t get near me.’
That year’s US Open apart, he broadly enjoyed the next two years of a career that was to see him claim six Grand Slam titles, reach four other Major finals, and win 49 times on the tour in total.
‘I always liked the playing tennis part, but when I look back in many ways it would have been better if I had not won in 1985.
‘As a player I would have ended up better, because after that the focus was all on winning rather than improving. If you have three years of build-up to your first big success I think you get a grounding and round out your game.
Becker’s financial affairs and private life have often been both complex and colourful
‘Off the court I was still virtually a child when this was happening, you have to live in a bubble. It would have been better to wait for a lot of reasons. You become a goldfish in a tank and everyone is allowed to watch, it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. But you can’t choose the timing of these things.’
Still only 19, it was considered a seismic upset when he lost to Australian outsider Peter Doohan in 1987 (he beat Ivan Lendl in the 1986 final). Even then his post-match interview won much admiration when he eloquently told the BBC’s Gerry Williams ‘Well basically I lost a tennis match, I didn’t lose a war, nobody died.’
‘In 1987 it was starting to get to me,’ he says now. ‘ People were asking how many I would win in a row. Comparing me to Borg. I felt it was getting out of hand and I didn’t want it to define my life. It was a relief after that.’
He readily acknowledges that international fame and fortune brought with it many upsides: ‘It opened doors that I never knew existed.’
Some of them, undeniably, he should not have walked through. As has been well-chronicled, his financial affairs and his private life have often been both complex and colourful.
What he did not know at the time was that his first big title would spark a 35-year love affair with London, which is where he has based himself for the majority of the time since.
‘The reason I live in London is because of Wimbledon, it became my home. I had more privacy than I had in Germany, and even after 35 years there is still a story about me there every week,’ he says, slightly ruefully.
‘There was a royal family here and not stories about me every day. I’ve always liked the multi-cultural vibe of London, I’ve always felt welcome and respected. I can blend more into the crowd, which has not always been easy in my life.’
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