Unlike the reaction to many of his fellow countrymen’s sporting victories on British soil, Boris Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon victory was celebrated across the nation as a marvel – a surprising inversion of traditional Anglo-German relationships pertaining mostly to Becker being just seventeen years old at the time. Since then, Wimbledon has become synonymous with the blonde Bavarian.
Not only did he notch up three wins and seven final appearances as a player, but during his recent time as former World Number One Novak Djokovic’s head coach, Becker had a hand in six of the Serb’s 12 Grand Slam titles. As Djokovic sought for the mental strength to get him over the final hurdle in major tournaments, the appointment of Becker was designed to bring with it an improved performance on the hallowed green of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, such is the latter’s affinity with the area.
“Wimbledon is home for me, and one of my favourite sayings is ‘never underestimate the importance of local knowledge’,” explains the 50-year-old former champ.“I know everything here, from the Centre Court to the village to the quickest way to get into Chelsea or Kensington. I’ve played on every practice court; I know the locker room, I know the player’s lounge. I’ve been there for 32 years, so I think that gave us a head start.”
Djokovic and Becker parted ways in 2016, with the Serb now sitting at 13th in the world rankings, some way off the pace of fellow champions like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. For Becker’s own part, despite his playing days long being over, any chance to return to the venue where his teenage-self began his illustrious career marks it out his favourite place to win, be it as a player or a coach.
“When I’m coaching and when I’m sitting at the Wimbledon Centre Court in the players’ box, I feel like I’m playing,” he says. “I feel like I’m 17 or 18 again, with the same enthusiasm, same fire and the same will to win, but at the same time I’m thankful that I don’t have to do it again, because I’m too old for it. So I’m happy I can put my faith into my player, but the emotions are unbelievable. You know, for me, winning Wimbledon as a player and as a coach, it’s just the ultimate thrill.”
As a player, he was prone to the odd on-court outburst or two in his day – although he was overshadowed at the time by his contemporary, John McEnroe. But during his time coaching Djokovic, Becker showed a calmer persona which he believed was a crucial aspect of his player being able to finish tournaments as strongly as he, invariably, began them.
“Did we scream ‘let’s go’ and ‘stay strong’ and everything?” Becker says. “Of course, but I don’t think that’s coaching in the real sense. You know in the middle of the storm, when everybody goes crazy, I think he looked for us as a place of peacefulness, of serenity of quietness. If I had gone and jumped and screamed all the time, I think it would have made him more nervous than anything.”
As someone who had won titles all over the world by his 20th birthday, in Britain, USA, Australia, France and Japan, Becker is well-placed to cast a knowledgeable eye over the future of tennis – including those aiming, within a few years, to emulate the past ranking of himself and his former client.
What he sees as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the current crop of young pretenders, however, are talented individuals let down by “character and maturity problems.” “Nick Kyrgios is the most talented of the young guns,” he declares. “He’s got a big game, a big serve, he loves the big stage. He has to control his emotions better than he does. But just plain tennis – I think he is a future champion. I watch him very closely. If you play him in a tournament, he’s a tough competitor. He is not someone who is beaten easily. He’s very colourful. He’s a character. I think people talk a lot about him at the moment, a bit too much for his outbursts than his performances. But I think that will change.
“Bernard Tomic is a similar story. These young players have to be comfortable with the baggage that comes with it: the more you win, the more people have expectations…it’s difficult for these younger players to cope.”
For his own part, these expectations led to relationship and financial woes away from the sport. But whilst his off-field infidelities have been well publicised, one thing’s certain: it’ll take some player to match Becker’s decades-long legacy on-court.