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Broken Promise
S.L. Price
May 28, 2001
He was the philosopher king of tennis, a gutsy champion with a social conscience. But after a sex scandal and a messy divorce, can Boris Becker put the pieces back together?
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May 28, 2001

Broken Promise

He was the philosopher king of tennis, a gutsy champion with a social conscience. But after a sex scandal and a messy divorce, can Boris Becker put the pieces back together?

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On the court Becker would curse himself and bleed from the knees, dive on the grass and scream. Off it, he provided a counterpoint to the bombastic Germans seen in one World War II movie after another. He was a philosopher king in shorts, complaining when British newspapers headlined any of his wins as a BLITZKRIEG and musing, after losing his Wimbledon crown at 19, "I didn't lose a war. Nobody died." He proclaimed solidarity with Amnesty International and with squatters in Hamburg, wore a Greenpeace patch where other players sported sneaker logos. He had charm, an outsized ego and, at times, real guts. In 1992, ignoring his nation's euphoria over reunification, Becker refused to serve as ambassador for Berlin's bid to host the 2000 Olympics, saying he feared a triumphant Germany might stir its citizens' old fantasies about a master race.

"He thinks about the big picture, which is very unusual these days," says Billie Jean King. "He's thoughtful, and he cares. Of his generation he was the only one. Tennis misses him."

However, as the white, straight, middle-class son of an architect from Leimen, Becker lacked the authority of a King or an Arthur Ashe. Yes, his parents had met in a displaced persons' camp after the war, but he was a child of privilege who could never embody his causes. Ivan Lendl dubbed Becker "the limousine radical," and it was true. Becker had strong opinions but no struggle. He had never really put himself on the line.

Then he fell in love. In the fall of 1991 Becker met Barbara Feltus, a model and aspiring actress, the daughter of an African-American serviceman and a white German woman. By that time Becker, at 23, had achieved all a tennis player could ask for: three Wimbledon titles, one U.S. and one Australian Open championship (a second Australian crown would come in 1996), two Davis Cup titles, a stint at No. 1. "She was spontaneous, very lively," Boris says of Barbara. "I was moody, didn't know whether I should continue tennis, and she brought sunshine into my life. She was the complete opposite of how I was."

At a New Year's Eve party in Australia, Becker decided to go public with the romance. Just before he and Barbara ventured downstairs and danced together for all to see, he stood in a hotel room and told her, "Tomorrow your life will be completely different—for the rest of your life."

Barbara had no idea how bad it could be. Death threats poured in. People shouted at tournaments that Barbara was a gold digger, a "black witch." Becker, Germany's most famous man, adored for his so-called Germanic blond looks and furious game, had betrayed something deep. One headline wailed WHY, BORIS? WHY NOT ONE OF US? Neither Boris nor Barbara flinched. Fifteen months later he secreted a diamond ring in her whiskey sour and proposed. They shocked Germans by posing nude for a photo on the cover of the weekly magazine Stern. Becker threatened to leave Germany if the racist rants didn't stop.

After they married in 1993 and Noah was born and their devotion showed no sign of abating, a sea change occurred. By the mid-'90s Boris and Barbara had risen to a high station in German society, serving as liberal poster parents, "a symbol of the new Germany," Becker says. Now when he spoke out, he had all the authority he could handle. "I wasn't just talking about it; I lived it," he says. "I've felt racism because of her, because of Noah. Because they look a little different, they get treated differently, so it's credible if I talk about it now."

"He was a kind of social hero," says Paul Sahner, a longtime friend of Becker's and a writer for Bunte magazine. "They were a glamour couple. Many people lived their dreams through Boris and Barbara."

So much so that, by 1997, when Becker curtailed his tournament play and their marriage started crumbling, Boris and Barbara still put on a perfect face. "We almost had no choice but to play along," says Becker, "and it put more pressure on the relationship than already existed. That's probably why we're divorced today. We started to play roles to please everyone."

The marriage ended with a spectacular crash. On Nov. 9, 2000, the 62nd anniversary of the Nazi attack on Jews known as Kristallnacht, Becker marched with 200,000 others through the streets of Berlin to protest Germany's rising tide of racist violence. He was the very picture of a serious man. Only one month later, he was an object of ridicule around the world.

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