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Curry Kirkpatrick
August 27, 1990
Boris Becker proves that you can play tennis like a predator and still accept defeat like a sportsman
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August 27, 1990

Eye Of The Tiger

Boris Becker proves that you can play tennis like a predator and still accept defeat like a sportsman

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•London. Following his stunning defeat, from the winning position of 3-1 in the fifth set of the final on his "home court" at Wimbledon, Becker actually clambered over the net to give his conqueror, Edberg, a heartfelt embrace. The British press immediately proclaimed a new era in tennis sportsmanship, starkly contrasting Becker's reaction to defeat with the response of that day's other dethroned champion, Argentina's weeping, whining World Cupper, Diego Maradona. "Why such feelings for Stefan?" said Becker. "Because we both have been here before. Both sides."

The mellifluous tones of Becker's post-match concerti can be traced directly to Wimbledon '87, when, as defending back-to-back champion, Becker was rudely knocked off in the second round by Peter Doohan, an obscure Aussie from the University of Arkansas who was staying at a London YMCA. It wasn't Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson; it was Kirk Douglas.

At the time Becker was between coaches. He was also fighting with his business manager, Ion Tiriac, over Becker's relationship with Bénédicte Courtin, whom Tiriac considered a distraction from tennis. As the London tabloids rejoiced in headlines such as BONKED OUT: TOO MUCH SEX BEATS BORIS, Tiriac sent Mile. Courtin home to Monaco.

Following his defeat by Doohan, as the sky began to fall on the All England Club, Becker uttered these immortal words: "I didn't lose a war. Nobody died. Basically, I just lost a tennis match." And that was that.

In reality, it took the 19-year-old several weeks to get over the experience. "It was a milestone...unnatural," he says. "But it wasn't the tennis that bothered me. There were such big changes going on in my life that I didn't care if I won or lost on the court. I didn't like what I represented...the rich and famous. The German 'patriot.' That wasn't me. I wanted to change my image. I was confused, and that was the real defeat."

The translation of all of this might be: Girl Trouble. Which would be ironic, because it was always rumored that Tiriac himself had arranged the Becker-Courtin liaison. The daughter of Monaco's chief of police for foreign residents, Courtin was three years older than Becker and, having split from a co-owner of the Lotus Formula One racing team, she was a generation more sophisticated. Courtin "met" Becker at Tiriac's doctor's office. She lingered around Becker's practice sessions long enough to do running exercises with him. Then she arrived in London for the big show. Of the story that Tiriac fixed up the romance, Becker now says, "Ridiculous."

And Tiriac? "I shall comment only this," says Count Dracula. "Better for Boris to have girlfriends than boyfriends."

Regardless, Becker took the following year's loss to Edberg in the Wimbledon final much harder. "Losing a final is the worst; it's like you never won the six other matches, all is gone, you lost the whole tournament on the last day," he says. But by that time he had come to trust in his positive philosophy. "I figured out not to blame myself for any losses," he says. "On that day I lose, I just realize the other guy was better. I go on. I'll get him next time. I think one of my strengths is I never get caught up in the hype of how good I am supposed to be. I know I have to work hard to be as good as some others. Only when I won the U.S. Open last year did I know. It was the first major tournament I'd won off the grass. It confirmed for me that I was a real tennis player. I knew I was the best in the world...that year." The International Tennis Federation declared Becker, who also led West Germany to victory in the Davis Cup in December, world champion for 1989.

Becker wasn't always so gracious on the short end. As a kid back in Leimen, a tiny cement-mixing town near Heidelberg, just above West Germany's Black Forest, he experienced the usual crying jags and hurled the normal complement of rackets when he lost. He was a kid without many friends, a loner who appreciated solitude; as the Germans say, an Einzelgänger. Between the ages of nine and 12, he was not among the best boys on the courts, so he had to hit with the girls, one of whom was a skinny little waif from nearby Bruhl named Graf. "One day, I remember it was a Saturday afternoon, I beat Steffi four sets, all ones," says Becker. "You know, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. Whew. I never had to play her again. Steffi had enough."

Becker's strong foundation included the harsh discipline of the youth programs in Leimen conducted by his earliest coach, Boris Breskvar, and the balanced priorities of his family at home. Once, little Boris, at 14, got so crazed with emotion—"I used to misbehave...right up to the outer limits," he says—that his father, Karl-Heinz, slapped him across the face. Following another setback on the court, Becker remembers his father, an architect and a former local water-polo star, telling him, "Look, it's just a tennis match. Nobody else cares. Be happy outside the tennis court. That is what matters."

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