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THE Burden OF Being Boris
Sally Jenkins
June 21, 1993
At the age of 25, Boris Becker enters his 10th Wimbledon with an erratic game and aweary soul
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June 21, 1993

The Burden Of Being Boris

At the age of 25, Boris Becker enters his 10th Wimbledon with an erratic game and aweary soul

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Becker, who keeps an apartment in Hamburg but spends part of the year in Monte Carlo for tax reasons, says he may leave the country for good. "I don't want to go," he says, "but the press leaves me almost no choice." He has also distanced himself from his homeland by refusing to play Davis Cup this year, repulsed by the events nationalism, which he feels is too intense. "There are wars on CNN," he says. "We don't need more."

Clearly this is a different man from the boy who won three Wimbledons playing with a headlong fury. "He has changed," says Graf. "But it's a normal evolution. When you grow up in small towns like we did, and then you travel the world, that changes you. That can be good—as long as you know where you came from and how you got here."

In 1987, when he suffered his first significant slump, reaching only one Grand Slam semifinal, Becker experienced a fall from grace in Germany that he's still trying to comprehend. In the preceding two years he had been voted West Germany's sportsman of the year, but in '87 the nation's press turned on him savagely, and he finished ninth in the voting. Günter Sanders, the president of the German Tennis Federation and a man who has known Becker from boyhood, watched him flounder. "He went from child to man all in one step," says Sanders. "He missed something in between."

But Becker's vow to recover from his current slump is not a capricious one: His '87 tailspin was followed by the best tennis of his career. That year Becker fired Günther Bosch, his coach since boyhood, and hired Bob Brett. In 1989 Becker not only won Wimbledon but also won the U.S. Open, reached the semifinals at Roland Garros and led Germany to the Davis Cup. In '91 he became No. 1.

Shortly after gaining the top ranking, Becker parted from Brett. Becker held the No. 1 spot for a mere 12 weeks and has never recovered it. "After '91 I was tired of tennis," says Becker. "I was tired of all the straining and the doing. I had all the success I wanted."

Becker's fatigue has been palpable. He carries his 6'3" frame with an arthritic stillness and displays the sickly mannerisms of an invalid, coughing incessantly and clearing his throat of phlegm. While he has had brief surges on the court—he finished last year with three titles and added two more early this year—he has been hampered by injuries, illness and constant coaching changes.

Becker acknowledges a basic ambivalence about being on tour. He seems to take pleasure in seeing how far he can fall before rising once again. His ranking dropped to No. 10 last year, his lowest since 1985, before he awoke in the fall to get seven wins over Top 10 players.

"I found out that tennis is a way of finding myself," he says. "Of finding the real Boris Becker. What happened to me at 17 was not normal. I've come more to terms with Boris Becker. I understand his strengths and weaknesses. I accept that I'm famous for the rest of my life, and I have fewer ups and downs than I did a couple of years ago. I'm more stable."

Perhaps, but it still galls him that his slump has allowed other players to gain confidence against him, even on his favorite surface, grass. Last year a little soda pop named Andre Agassi knocked him out of Wimbledon in the quarters. At the Stella Artois grass championships in London last week, countryman Michael Stich defeated him in straight sets. Stich is the man who beat Becker in the '91 Wimbledon final. The two are emphatically not friends. "Certainly Boris doesn't like a player who takes away from his cake," Sanders says. "Now there is another who has a big bite."

Clearly, Becker is not very coachable. Witness the legion of men he has hired and fired, and the way he tries to beat others at their own game, playing baseline tennis against baseliners as he did in the Wimbledon loss to Agassi. He's reluctant to heed the advice of those he pays to oversee his game. "You have to make him think something is his own idea," said Bresnik shortly before he was dismissed. "For two or three days he won't do it. Then one day maybe he'll try it."

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