Brad Gilbert, the junk-balling Californian who has had some success against Becker on the court, says, "I think he's lying about his age. I think Boris is 35."
Ken Flach, the American doubles specialist, says, "Boris has always acted like he wanted to be your friend. And I think he does. Oh, we're all gladiators out here, and Boris will nail those winners and give you that stare and that stomp. He's Boris the Lionhearted. But he's really still the guy he looked like when he first came on tour: Opie, from Andy Griffith's Mayberry. And that's genuine."
Svensson says, "All you have to do is check the body language around the locker room. Boris just carries himself like the champion."
"I think it's fair to say this guy has all the qualities to be the best Number One the tennis tour has had," says Weller Evans, the ATP director of operations. "Whenever Boris falls short—when he says something not quite right in a press conference or doesn't play hard enough or fails in a comeback or loses a Grand Slam title—the expectations are so high that we all feel down. Tennis just wants so bad for the guy to be it."
Which, if nothing else, separates Becker from just about every other player alive. Lendl used to lie down and absolutely expire in huge matches. He once refused to play the most important tennis tournament in the world because grass, he said, "makes me sneeze a lot." (The same week he showed up to play in the pro-am of the Westchester [N.Y.] Classic golf tournament.) Agassi, Little Punk Pink, still quits on occasion, blatantly hot-dogs at the expense of opponents and recently insulted the president of the ITF, Philippe Chatrier, whom Agassi called a "bozo." McEnroe's tedious brat act is indelibly imprinted on the public image of the game as firmly as is his talent; the second time he played Becker, at Stratum Mountain, Vt., in August of 1986, McEnroe shouted "——-you" and "Eat——-" at him and had the unmitigated gall to say, "It bothers me [that Becker] won Wimbledon.... He hasn't really said anything about anything and supposedly he is an interesting person." And then these marvelous fellows wonder why Becker is applauded and considered a grand champion and they, for all their titles and trophies, are not.
At a meeting of the Top 10 players last fall, the subject of the Grand Slam Cup held the floor. This is the stupidly extravagant $6 million, 16-man exhibition the ITF came up with for next December in Munich, West Germany, in an attempt to overshadow the $2 million ATP Tour World Championships three weeks earlier in Frankfurt. "It doesn't fit," Becker told the gathering. "It's terrible overexposure in Germany. It's embarrassing for the game."
"Two guys still swore they'd play," Becker said recently. "Seven said they agreed with me and that they wouldn't play. But I told them, 'A lot of grass is going to grow between now and then, and you might need a couple of bucks.' And I bet only three guys in the room were honest. Me and Lendl and Gilbert. Yeah, those two will play that thing for sure."
Becker discusses his fellow capitalistionaires with a smile, without rancor. The waiter at San Lorenzo Fuoriporta, a trendy bistro located in the village of Wimbledon, has served him a lunch of mozzarella with avocado, rice with mushrooms—"risotto funghi, grazie," Becker had requested, sounding as if his name were Borigi Beccherino—and fresh pineapple. But there is a problem. "This pineapple.... You have added the alcohol syrup.... I have to practice later.... Would you mind bringing the pineapple without alcohol?" Becker says this almost apologetically.
There are very few 22-year-old tennis players who care what a foreigner twice their age thinks about music and books, much less tennis. There are still fewer athletes who ask about a journalist's family, as if they actually cared whether their (traditionally considered) slimeball adversary were alive or dead. The number of internationally famous monster celebs who would behave kindly toward a waiter who has not only wasted their precious time but nearly destroyed their carefully honed bodies? Whoa! The one in all the world may have been sitting in San Lorenzo that very afternoon.
"McEnroe?" Becker says. "All in all, my relations with him are good. Much better in the last 12 months, when we have had a couple of dinners together, one-on-one. We came to the conclusion that we should have no problems. Aww, look. John always starts something if he is pissed off about losing. Then he insults you. I just told him, 'Don't insult me. I'm bigger than you.'