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Why the world owes many debts to Boris Franz Becker

It’s true the tennis icon owes people money, but the world owes him more.

May 08, 2022 / 07:20 PM IST
Former tennis player Boris Becker arriving with his partner Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro (not pictured) at Southwark Crown Court to face sentencing after being found guilty of four charges earlier this month, in London, Britain, April 29, 2022. (Image: Reuters)

Former tennis player Boris Becker arriving with his partner Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro (not pictured) at Southwark Crown Court to face sentencing after being found guilty of four charges earlier this month, in London, Britain, April 29, 2022. (Image: Reuters)

Boris Franz Becker’s list of achievements as a sportsman is long and illustrious, but now he is in jail after an adverse sentence pronounced by a London court. The once top-seeded tennis star has started his prison term at Wandsworth prison, just a couple of miles from the Wimbledon Centre Court where he won three of his six Grand Slam titles. Newspapers have written obituaries of Becker’s glorious sports career, his family have called the jail term ‘unfair’, and his friend Piers Morgan, Britain’s mercurial television man, has said how much he is going to miss his favourite pal.

Does it still matter that he is one of the living legends the world has seen since the 1980s? If one cuts out the public mayhem over his fall for a minute and revisits history, the answer is a resounding yes. Becker is bankrupt and he owes a lot of people a lot of money. Worse, he evaded tax and lied about his earnings, but his former wife Lily Becker has already asked: "Has he killed anybody?"

Moving beyond the emotionally charged reactions to Becker’s road to perdition, the Germany-born tennis icon’s contributions to the sport and to his country of birth still tower over everything else. Becker is now 54 years old and well past his prime as a sportsman, but his contributions to the sport were not a mere flash in the pan - they constituted a series of astounding victories between the 1980s and the 2000s, tied closely to the evolution of the sport in both Germany and the UK, his country of birth and the country he chose to live in.

Until the appearance of Becker on a tennis court, tennis in Germany was a fringe sport, reserved as pastime for the upper classes. It was neither part of the popular culture, nor covered in the media. It’s true that Michael Stitch became a world-class player during the same period – the so called "golden age" of German Tennis that lasted until the 1990s – but he was never regarded as a figure of national importance. Becker, born and raised in Leimen close to Heidelberg, changed that and filled the public hunger for a national hero in post-war Germany reeling from the shame of the Auschwitz (the concentration camps).

Also read: Boris Becker, through the Indian lens

When Helmut Kohl became the German Chancellor in 1982, he made deliberate efforts to construct a national identity in Germany that made a clear break from its painful past. At this time, the German leisure industry boomed, then culture and media industry grew in economic importance, and the spread of consumerism widened. All these coincided with the development of sports and electronic media, ushering in the era of private broadcasting.

Becker’s phenomenal success triggered a tennis boom and private broadcasters benefitted from it. It made him part of a media revolution in Germany in the second-half of the 1980s and catalysed greater public engagement with private television, something that hadn’t happened before. For instance, when Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon Final in 1975, ARD, the most important public broadcaster in Germany, switched after an hour to a popular children’s programme to garner higher audience ratings. The same happened during the classic 1980 Wimbledon Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

Public interest in the game soared when Boris Becker won the Wimbledon Final in 1985. Beating Kevin Curren at the age of 17 not only made him the youngest tennis champion, he also became one of the most popular Germans overnight. Regarded as a pop-cultural icon right from the start, Becker turned into an international and cosmopolitan figure. He went on to defend his Wimbledon title in 1986 by beating Ivan Lendl in straight sets, and many wins thereafter - six Grand Slam titles, including three Wimbledon titles, a cabinet packed with trophies and a $47 million fortune in prize money and sponsorship deals. The German tabloid press called him ‘Boom Boom Boris’, a reference to his powerful service and forehand.

His success brought about fundamental changes in the German sporting world, its socio-cultural milieu and in the contours of its national politics. Germans grew their sporting pride beyond football, widely considered joyless and conservative at the time, to be taken in by tennis which now had a young and hardworking star. When he played the Davis Cup, Germans stayed up all night to watch his matches. In his success, Becker married the youthfulness of his game with conservative charm. On the court, he was aggressive; off the court, he was the advertising hero for German conservative institutions such as the Deutsche Bank and the car company Opel. He became a global ambassador of the new Germany, a responsibility he carried well. In the 1987 match at Hartford, USA, often referred to as the Battle of Hartford, Becker acted as a true-blue German patriot, waving the German flag. That image in history is one of the most iconic images linking him to the newfound idea of a vibrant new Germany.

And then, he moved away from Germany post-retirement and set up home in Wimbledon in the UK, where tennis has a historical and deep tradition.

What really happened?

Two events might explain, though to what extent they impacted his move to the UK isn’t clear: Becker was convicted of tax evasion in Germany in 2012, which dented his reputation in his home country severely. As a national icon, his private life had received intense scrutiny, often unfairly. His marriage, divorces, business ventures and television punditry were scorned in his country of birth. For instance, his first marriage to Barbara Feltus – a German national whose father was of African-American origin - was widely mocked in Germany’s national press and attracted negative public opinion. In one of his regular fee-paying appearances on celebrity TV shows, he was ridiculed for wearing a helmet and fly swats that were taped to his head for several hours. More recently, his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement was trolled in German social media. A series of political blunders have played their part too: He played in South Africa during the apartheid and lost his title as a UNICEF ambassador. He then made some controversial remarks about fans and national socialism in Germany, which received a strong public backlash.

Becker ran out of favour fast. He struggled to cope and it was evident in the choices he made off court and in the self-staging of himself as a constant rebel. In one of his many angry outbursts on court, he flew off the handle at the Australian Open in 1987, spitting at the umpire and smashing his racket. He reportedly became addicted to sleeping pills, alcohol, and arguably, women. Over the years, he’s also had a string of failed business ventures. His romantic relations and sex life – including his infamous one-night stand with a Russian model which resulted in the birth of a child – were constant fodder for the media. In Germany, his image went from being a national icon to someone unable to grow up.

Interestingly, his peer Steffi Graf managed to avoid the same public scrutiny, though her father Peter Graf was convicted of financial misdemeanours and imprisoned in 1997. While Graf became a symbol of good behaviour, a law-abiding German citizen embodying the typical German values, Becker was constantly put under the scanner for his very public, very ostentatious lifestyle. In one of his interviews with Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspapers in Germany, he is reported to have said that he “always had the feeling I was misunderstood”.

In England, though, he became a celebrated star. Becker served as a sports pundit for the BBC for Wimbledon, and also made efforts to reinvent himself in Germany by coaching Novac Djokovic for six of his Grand Slam wins. He often said he felt respected and at home in the UK. In an interview with British magazine Radio in 2015, he is quoted to have said: "UK is my home now. In Germany, I have no privacy. (Here) I am given space…. I am not national property."

Somewhat developing a status as Britain’s adopted son, Becker’s private life caught up with him soon. Things went downhill after 2017 when he was declared bankrupt over an unpaid loan of nearly $4 million on his estate in Mallorca, Spain. Now, he has been convicted of fraud. German media coverage of him has oscillated between harsh and indifferent, carrying superimposed images of him against the backdrop of the gloomy Victorian prison.

“What now awaits him is brutal,” wrote Stefanie Bolzen, the London correspondent of Die Welt.

“He could have averted this tragedy,” Der Spiegel, the German weekly, printed, “but he was not prepared to show any real remorse, or humility towards his creditors… at the very least he should have shown that he had learned from his mistakes.”

His former friends and sportsmen have expressed shock and regret. The German tennis federation, DTB, has said it will “stand by” him. Meanwhile, the UK media has reported that the incarcerated star could face deportation after he is released from the prison as he is still not a British citizen.

It's true these are the worst of times for Boris Becker, now visibly condemned by both his country of birth and his country of residence. But will it be all it takes to erase a historic legacy?

The enduring myth around Boris Becker - that you can achieve your goals if you have a strong will and fighting spirit – continues to inspire generations of sportspeople around the world. It’s true that with the successes of Becker (and Graf) paved the way for what followed in German sport - Michael Schumacher in Formula One and Jan Ullrich in cycling. Becker’s resilience and capacity for playing fast-paced, high-energy games and his remarkable athleticism, have spawned several sport inventions - examples include the Becker lunge and other trademarks such as the Becker-Sage (a saw motion fist pump) and the Becker-Blocker (an early return shot).

Above all, Becker contributed to the making of a modern German identity which helped it move past the holocaust. Since the end of the second world war, West Germany pursued a policy of low key, low visibility national identity. Becker was able to transcend this. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he became the symbol of a unified Germany. In all his transitions as a global sports icon from Germany, he did more for his country of birth than any sportsman in its history. In making the UK his home, he was simply running away from the often-toxic media scrutiny of his life in Germany as a national icon.

Today, he is in a prison cell, and can no longer run away – from ignominy and massive debts. But to Boris Franz Becker, the sports star, the world, particularly his country of birth, still owes many debts.

Pallavi Singh is a freelance journalist and business historian in training at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History, Belfast. Views are personal. She tweets at @econhistorienne