Just as his marriage started to crumble, Becker's longtime business manager and close friend, Axel Meyer-Wolden, died of cancer in 1997. Two years later Becker's father, Karl-Heinz, died. Boris, a star since he was 16, had never indulged in the usual experimentation nor made the usual mistakes of a boy's late teens. Few were surprised when, at 32, he began indulging himself as never before.
His final day as a player, at Wimbledon in 1999, stands like a doorway between his glorious past and his soiled present. Becker, who'd made his name serving and volleying, lost in straight sets in the fourth round to Pat Rafter, the game's last serve-and-volley specialist. Becker knew he was done. He had liked sitting in the locker room during the rain delays that day, talking to older players back for seniors matches, but he felt removed from the whole scene, as if watching someone else complete his career. After losing he met with the press and began drinking. Barbara was seven months pregnant with Elias. She wanted to spend the night alone with Boris, but he had other ideas.
"This is the night!" Becker recalls. "I'm officially out, no way back, and I'm celebrating with my buddies, and we drink and drink. I have a big argument with her, and she goes crazy and I go crazy, and I say, 'This is a very important day of my life. On this night, I don't want to fight; it's not allowed.' But she went on and I went on, and I drink more. I was crazy."
He ended up at Nobu with friends, and there was Ermakova, the colossal blunder he didn't make until his career's last day. He was still buzzing with the thrill of his final match, still wanting a piece of the action. Then he was in a closet; standing outside himself for the second time that day, he watched someone named Boris Becker drunkenly sire a daughter. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "It wasn't an affair. It was just poom-bah-boom!"
Ever since, Becker has tried to keep busy. He has cooked in a high hat with chef Paul Bocuse in one TV special, hung out with designer Karl Lagerfeld in another. He owns half of Volkl and is trying to expand its market share. He is doing plenty of interviews. Still, for a man so apt to see all kinds of signals of his own greatness, his world is sometimes dominated by a frivolousness that is almost painful to see.
One night in March, Becker went to a South Beach club called Bed, where dinner and drinks are served to customers as they loll about on giant beds. In walked Sean (Puffy) Combs, fresh from New York City and his recent acquittal on gun charges. Becker and Combs compared notes on their rides through the celebrity courtroom circus. "I was in bed with Puffy, actually—and a beautiful Indian girl and a Hungarian girl," Becker says. "They bring us a meal, the food, appetizers, fruit, champagne. Continental cuisine."
As his friend Sahner sees it, "Until 1999, Boris didn't have too much of a fun life. In Germany there's a lot of talk that he's running to find his lost childhood. Now he must find his way. If he continues to do what he did the last two years, it will be very dangerous for him and his image."
"He looks lost," says Haas. "He would like to have a family, but on the other hand he feels good about being free so he can do what he wants. It's tough: When you're on the tour for as long as he was, as successful as he was, as committed, you miss out on some things. Now he's really got nothing."
Yet, there are flashes. Becker is a member of the Europe-based Laureus World Sports Academy, a foundation devoted to achieving social change through sports, and when he heard about its support of the Richmond-based Midnight Basketball program, he insisted on seeing it in action. A barely publicized event in mid-April promised Becker little in the way of image-polishing, but he went to Richmond anyway, attended a workshop, gave a pep talk, borrowed some socks and sneakers and played ball—all before an audience of only 100 people. A month earlier, he had spent two days working in a Berlin program for juvenile delinquents. He still wants to make a difference.
"Boris is a serious man," says former U.S. track star Edwin Moses, chairman of the World Sports Academy. "We talk about social issues all the time. He's taken a beating, but with his strength and character, he'll come back and do some fantastic things."