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(McEnroe seemed to call Becker's bluff when he made an issue of the nervous cough that wells up inside the West German at critical moments, both on and off the court. McEnroe imitated the cough during the match, and when Becker complained that he couldn't help it, McEnroe called back, "You've been coughing for three years. Are you ill?" The beastie boys' beastly match went 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 to—aagck, aagck—Becker.)
These comments, too, disappointed many of Becker's admirers. But some of his countrymen, at least, were sympathetic. The word some Germans used to define their young sportsman was this: unausgegoren—like some wines, not matured.
"Ever since I was labeled as a 'German hero' and a 'flag carrier' at the Davis Cup in Hartford"—when Becker ran around the court waving the West German colors after his team beat the U.S. in 1987—"I've been sick of people talking in my voice," he says. "I am not like that at all. I was only pissed off because the crowd waved the U.S. flag for three days. My own waving was misinterpreted. Look," Becker says, staring at the ceiling of San Lorenzo, mouthing the words first to get them right. "I'm no nationalist. I never wanted to represent the patriots. I have no problem being German, one way or the other. I'm not particularly proud of it. It's just there whether I like it or not."
If last winter's political bombshells weren't enough, Becker brought on another fusillade of criticism when he announced that he would not play Davis Cup for two-time defending champion West Germany in 1990 because he wanted "to concentrate on reaching Number One." In April the Cup holders were beaten by Argentina in Buenos Aires while Becker trained, according to one writer from Bild, "in the sand dunes and bars of Miami's Coconut Grove."
"The real reason I didn't play," says Becker, "is because Davis Cup has lost its meaning for West Germans. It's not about tennis anymore. It's all money and status and the show-off crowd. It's about being seen in the VIP tents. Tickets are so expensive, only the rich and famous can come. That's wrong. But they shouldn't be mad at me for not playing. It's just one less sponsor party [at which] they'll have to meet me. If people choose not to believe my words, maybe they'll believe my actions."
Don't insult me. I'm bigger than you.
To understand the impact in his homeland of anything Becker does or says, just imagine that every major American personality who has been mentioned in a column by Larry King—or been fortunate enough to even, say, meet Larry—suddenly perishes in an enormous vat splashing over with Perrier, sushi and Brie. Everyone, that is, except for five lucky celebs who dive to safety. That's about how many Germans there are of the sort Tiriac calls "makers, people who make life happen." This short list includes West German President Richard von Weizsäcker, former national soccer-team coach Franz Beckenbauer, TV variety-show host Thomas Gottschalk and, from beyond the broken Wall, the beauteous Witt. But of all of them, Becker is maker No. 1.
Conversely, the champion himself is known to have a complex about being considered "only" a tennis player; he feels he is not respected enough as a plain, solid, intelligent citizen. Becker still suffers from an ingenuous mind-set: He wants to be loved for his brain as well as his body.
"The trouble with Boris is he's too honest," says Helmut Sorge, a correspondent for the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. "He not only can't say no, he can't say 'I don't know.' The guy is a quick study—we say schlagfertig. He reacts very quickly off the cuff. But he's much better in short interviews than in a long, drawn-out dialogue, where he starts swimming in place. Boris wants so badly to be considered a Renaissance man, he waded into this minefield of political questions with very little ammunition or answers. He says he likes to read. Fine. Then he says he likes Goethe. But wait. Nobody reads Goethe, much less understands him. If Boris came out and acknowledged he's too tired when he comes back from tennis, he reads Goethe but just can't figure him out, everybody would love him for it. He'd seem much more human, back to normal."
But, alas, to some people Becker has gone to hell in a handbasket, shilling for the leftists, passing on the Davis Cup, feigning a taste for Goethe, dating big, big, big-time with the Ice Queen from the East—and denying himself a place in the nation's pantheon. But sich gedulden one second. West Germany's favorite bewildering son also has spent another summer of maturation, reaching still another Wimbledon final and preparing diligently to defend his title in the U.S. Open next week. That may very well be Flushing Meadow Two. And even the most objective nonaligned observer would agree that many more major titles are in store before little Leimen's big brave champion gets all the way back to normal again.