People shuffled from room to room, sad-eyed, murmuring, nibbling on platefuls of cold food. Just an hour earlier Boris Becker had stunned all of tennis by declaring his retirement from Grand Slam events, and now it was late afternoon at the cozy enclave on the outskirts of Wimbledon known as the German House. It was Becker, of course, who by winning the first of his three Wimbledons in 1985 single-handedly created the need for such a house, a hub for all the German journalists, players and agents who've swarmed the tournament ever since. "German tennis" didn't exist before Becker, not in the Open era anyway, and on this July day dozens of reporters and friends packed the living room, waiting for him to appear. Oddly, none of the usual big-story buzz crackled in the air. It felt like the end of something, and it was.
"Not many people breathe the air he breathes," said his coach, Mike DePalmer.
"He's like a king," said German player Nicolas Kiefer.
Finally Becker arrived. He wore a regal black-and-white warmup suit. Some women approached, and he kissed each of them on the cheek. "I feel free," he said.
Later, as twilight came down around him, Becker stood alone in the yard and spoke of what he called "my holy sport." He wasn't down. He knows that for all its problems, tennis had formed a good, strong part of his character. He loved the hidden roughness of the game, its polite cruelty. He was always mystified by the famous Kipling passage that greets each player on the way to Wimbledon's Centre Court.
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same," Becker recited. "I never understood what it meant. But I'm beginning to understand, and that's what it was here—a learning process about myself. It hurt the most when I lost here, and I was satisfied the most when I won. But I had to come to learn that. A little bit of wisdom, about myself."
It was nearly dark. For everyone else, the gathering seemed like a wake. Becker was happy.