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Boris Becker can't decide who he is these days. A wise philosopher-king? A cutting-edge sophisticate with a vaguely degenerate air? A gentle spiritual seeker? A reluctant German idol? Being a mere tennis player does not appear to be an option.
On this particular afternoon Becker seems to have settled into the role of brooding coffee-house intellectual. He sheds a fashionably distressed suede jacket and removes a pair of round Joycean dark glasses. Becker is reclining in the lounge of a small, chic London hotel. Looking contemplative, he sips from a glass of Evian and quotes Goethe. Becker reveals that he is reading four books at once: a bit of Goethe, a little Confucius, a tome on homeopathic medicine and a biography of Jimi Hendrix.
One can't help but notice Becker's resemblance to a character in Siddhartha, a work by another of his favorite German authors, Hermann Hesse. Siddhartha is basically one fellow's torturous search for the meaning of life. He's rich, he's poor, he fasts, he gorges, he swears off women, he's a babe-magnet. And now, here in the hotel lounge, sits a brooding Becker, who's on a baffling journey of his own.
At 25, Becker has not won a Grand Slam title in two years and seems increasingly stultified by his philosophic ponderings. He arrived at Wimbledon, which starts on Monday, in the midst of a severe slump. Thus far in 1993 he has withdrawn from five events and failed to advance as far as the quarterfinals in six others. In his two most recent Grand Slam events, the Australian Open in January and the French Open last month, he lost in the first and second rounds, respectively. He has fired yet another coach, Günther Bresnick, his fourth in two years. Yet he insists that "after a lot of soul-searching." his current phase of ineffectual play will soon end.
Wimbledon, where he built his career and reputation with titles in 1985, '86 and '89, could mark the turning point. "This part of the book is ewer," Becker says "I'm going on to the next 2,500 pages. I believe the soul-searching I've done will help me a lot. I'm much clearer now or where I want to go and why."
On the other hand, this could be just another cul-de-sac in Becker's intellectual wanderings. Who can be sure? Becker is no ordinary tennis player. Even when his game is shockingly ordinary, his status as the most enigmatic figure in tennis today remains undiminished. His slumps have a compelling, outsized quality. Becker doesn't get smaller. He just gets paler. He confounds even those who have known him longest, like fellow German Steffi Graf, a childhood playmate. "It's difficult to say what's in his head," Graf says. "Tennis is not his main goal, I think."
This will be Becker's 10th Wimbledon. It is a startling fact. "I'm old," he says with a laugh. The statement is not so ridiculous. Winner of back-to-back Wimbledons by age 18, Becker feels pressured by the standard of excellence he set in his youth. "One thing I know is that the world will not allow me to just play tennis," he says. "It will not allow me to be No. 15 in the world. So I do it right or I don't do it at all."
Becker, who is currently ranked No. 4, has spent much of the past two years in the throes of an awkward public transition into adulthood. His enormous popularity in Germany has threatened to suffocate him, and he has writhed under the scrutiny of the press. "They want to know the why, where and how of everything," he says. "They give me a hard time because I live my own life. They want me to be 17. I tell them I can't pretend to be 17 anymore. I'm not Boris anymore. I'm Mr. Becker."
Becker has declared his independence in a variety of ways but most sensationally by recently posing nude with his fiancée, Barbara Feltus, for the cover of the German magazine Stern. He and Feltus, who is a model, conceived of the cover as a protest against the frightening resurgence of racism and hate crimes in Germany. Feltus is black, the daughter of a former American GI. Public reaction in Germany to her relationship with Becker has been largely hostile, WHY NOT ONE OF US, BORIS? a headline screamed.
When Becker's parents saw the photo (which was taken by Feltus's father), they asked why he insisted on being nude. Becker told them, "I am more nude on a tennis court." He elaborates: "That was only a picture. But on a tennis court, when you are angry and afraid, people can look inside you. The TVs and the cameras want to get in your soul and your brain and your heart."