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EYE OF THE TIGER
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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"With Lendl there are no problems either, honestly," Becker says. "We have a lot of respect for each other's achievements. We do a couple of things the other guy doesn't agree with. But I don't hate him at all—just sometimes when he beats me. It's impossible to have a relationship if you're Number One and Number 2. I don't want the guy to know my emotions or anything about me." (Now, Becker has dropped to No. 3. On August 13 Edberg officially took the top ranking, relegating Lendl to No. 2.)

"I have the least relationship with Edberg," Becker says. "But he doesn't relate to anybody, I don't think. Not even the Swedes. He just doesn't ever talk. I would run out of words at dinner with Edberg.

"And Agassi? I know what you have written about this guy," says Becker. "But I think he has character. All I can know is what I see on the court, and when I beat him close in the Davis Cup he was one way. When he beat me this year in Indian Wells [Calif.], he was the same way: sporting. He treated me well. Sure, I don't agree with his stance on Wimbledon or his pink shorts or his strange hair. He is not normal. But thank god for that. Thank god he is different. He's very good for tennis. He'd just be that much better if he came to Wimbledon."

Meanwhile, it seems so much longer than five years ago that Becker first won Wimbledon, as someone once said, "almost unconsciously." It was 1985. He was Boom Boom. The Boomer. Sweet 17. And never been kissed. Well, at least not by the younger girls. Becker still refers to it as "Wimbledon One." The earth rumbled from the shock until Becker confirmed his superiority on the greensward by defending his title the following summer. Wimbledon Two. A series of desultory losses in the majors followed—Gilbert and Darren Cahill beat him in the U.S. Open—but when he came from behind to whip Lendl in the '88 Masters in New York, taking the fifth-set tiebreaker with a harrowing let-cord winner, Becker seemed to turn a corner.

"Becker displays courage so often on the court that you can't help but feel that he makes his own breaks," Steve Flink of World Tennis magazine has written. Becker, he says, "is most like Laver in terms of coping with pressure.... He is now calmer and more purposeful on the court, wiser and more thoughtful off it...a great player with a growing awareness of himself and his potential.... Becker wears the emblem of champion more comfortably than any modern player."

And he's now taking his image into his own hands. Becker is in a constant process of growing up, both intellectually and emotionally, and as part of that process he has been weaning himself from Tiriac's school of careful public relations—not always to diplomatic effect. Last winter, in a controversial interview with reporter Arno Luik of the West German magazine Sports, Becker made some comments that resulted in banner headlines in his country rivaling WALL FALLS. He offended some West Germans—and whatever Monegasques might have picked up Sports—by saying he went to live in Monte Carlo "very simply because it's a tax haven." What stunned his countrymen even more were Becker's political opinions—a mishmash of wild-eyed radical ideas for someone who always had been presented as the ideal of patriotic, conservative youth.

Among other trek-into-quicksand observations, Becker said reunification was moving too fast, which in the view of many Germans, West and East, trivialized it. He said he had contributed regularly to Greenpeace and was bothered that so much government expenditure went to the weapons industry. He came out for the homeless, the unemployed and, in effect, all street people, including the intimidating "squatters" on Hamburg's Hafen Strasse, who, he intimated, were welcome to come see him play.

(Sure enough, at the German Open in May, some of Hamburg's college pranksters showed up at the gates of the Rothenbaum Club dressed as squatters and their hated antagonists, the fascist skinheads. Doing their best Duke University student-section impression, they chanted, "Boris? Where are our tickets?")

The result of all this was tumult near and far, not least in the Becker household, whose patriarch, Karl-Heinz, happens to be a staunch member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Party. "We'd discussed our differences for three years," Becker says of his father. "He wasn't one bit happy, but he knew this was coming someday."

Give the Boomer credit. At any time he could have backed down, said he was misquoted, blamed the furor on someone else. But he never did. The nation's media had a high time blasting Becker's chutzpah—as if a mere athlete had no right to an opinion. Bild of Hamburg, the biggest newspaper in West Germany, even suggested that Becker's thoughts were actually planted in his spinning, naive head by his live-in, Schultz—"Karen the Red," Bild dubbed her. As recently as last month members of Becker's brain trust were saying that their man was "trapped" by the interviewer.

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