#NoCage

The rebel next door

Boris Becker

Boris Becker of Germany dives to make a return during the Men's Singles Semi Final of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship against Goran Ivanisevic on 1 July 1994 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon in London, England. (Photo by Bob Martin/Getty Images)

Undici in partnership with Puma Eyewear presents #NoCage, a collection of 12 stories of past and contemporary athletes that have changed the history of sports, overcoming the barriers and obstacles in their path thanks to determination and willpower.

Rebels and revolutionaries are born, [not made]. And so, if modestly, Boris Becker, was born. To paraphrase Totò, “The dream guy” was already a rebel from the carrot red hair of his youth (although it is now curiously golden blonde). He was a rebel at the tender age of five when his father – a great tennis fan – parked him for entire days at the tennis club where he would win his first tournament aged eight. He was rebellious in deciding that his life was tennis, committing so diligently that the Ministry of Education granted him a special dispensation that allowed him to drop out of school after ninth grade. And he was rebellious in hitting any ball that flew at him as hard as he could, even at the risk of shooting it out of court, earning him the then derogatory nickname of Bum Bum. Because, at first, as a junior, Boris Leimen – who came from nearby cultured Heidelberg – was the Little Johnny of the situation, just one of the promising youths to be guided by shining star, Steffi Graf. But he had that something more, something that revealed a decisive determination hiding within a solid body and muscles that needed special care and harder workouts than anyone else in order to channel his impressive power into the space between the lines on court. As Boris Breskvar, currently trainer of the promising Dominic Thiem said: “Becker could jump and dive on any shot, I always feared that he would get hurt, but he was born a fighter.”

Boris Becker of Germany during his match against Thomas Muster in the final of the ATP Monte Carlo Open on 1st May 1995 at the Monte Carlo Country Club in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Boris was not afraid of anything. As a soccer player, he excelled as a goalkeeper, and exalted at the riskiest parries. As a tennis player he forced the hand of his hesitant parents, signing a pact with “Mephisto”, the “Carpathian Dracula”, the mustachioed Ion Tiriac who showed up at his house with a lifetime contract: the former player turned manager of successful protagonists like Nastase, Vilas, Leconte, Panatta invested in the future of the boy wonder blindly, in return for absolute dedication and carte blanche on future business deals. He was an innovator, and incredibly motivated during his hard tennis training with coach-mom Gunther Bosch, and especially during physical workouts where “squat, stairs, and track sprints were paired with cutting firewood at altitude and other odd acts comparable to scenes out of a Rocky Balboa movie”. At the dawn of the ‘80s Boris from Leiden was above all the forerunner of a new, exciting version of tennis – which we miss greatly now –, that flaunted service-response and sprints to the net to make the earliest point with a volley. In the meanwhile, all those around him, including his great rival, Stefan Edberg, flourished with Bollettieri’s technique of “run and hit”, an evolution on cement of the Borg-school of baseline regulars. And so, that flash of red stood out even more, with increasingly strength.

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Becker was simply different, in every sense, even the negative of the word. Different in that service so heavily loaded on the legs, different for the nervous cough that afflicted him and persisted in moments of high tension, different for the way he chose to resolve the most difficult situations by launching out of the trenches with a bayonet – pardon, racket – in hand, perhaps after a powerful overhead smash, with a fierce face determined to sink the volley. Once, twice, three times, jumping from side to side with his famous dips. Until his opponent, oppressed, suffocated, astounded, saw no way out and gave in. He was also different in reproducing the phenomenon of precociousness, then still in vogue among young neo-professionals because the game was not yet so monothematic. Thus, in 1985 he dazzled the world and not just on the tennis court, coming out of nowhere to win the most coveted trophy of them all at just 17 years and 227 days: Wimbledon. He, the youngest of them all, “the boy next door” with bewitching blue eyes, spoke with the freshness of his years, but always said interesting things, taking a position and never giving up the fight.

Rebellious, just as we was on court. Where everything, for him, was more complicated and became a tragedy, especially on the legendary Centre Court: for others it was simply THE Temple, for him it was “My garden”, the scene of seven finals, but “only” three triumphs. For Bum Bum nothing was normal, nothing could be guaranteed. Beginning with the unforgettable season of ‘85, when he tamed Nystrom to 9-7 in the fifth set, soon after, against Mayotte, he twisted his ankle like the year before, when he broke it playing against Scanlon and had to be operated. Frightened and in pain, he went to the net to shake hands with his opponent and retire when Tiriac shouted: “Three minutes, three minutes.” Suggesting a medical intervention and rescue, after the 20 minutes that it took before the trainer really arrived on court.

On this premise, despite the fact that on the eve [of the tournament] he had won the traditional prologue, nobody at Queen's would have bet that Boris could win the Championships for the first time, beating grass specialist Kevin Curren in the final. For that matter, no one would have imagined a consecutive victory one year later when Boris succeeded in stealing Ivan Lendl’s green dream in the final. And again, very few people would have thought he would be such a wash out in 1987, slipping against the anonymous Peter Doohan, or that he would win only once between 1988 and 1991, ceding twice in the final against Edberg and Stich.


Becker vs Curren, Wimbledon 1985

But Becker was Becker for his rebellion, his rebellion against customs, the odds and the obvious. In 1992, when it seemed obvious to everyone that he needed to attack Andre Agassi as hard as possible to avoid being exhausted in the web of the baseline, Boris in his “garden” just became more stubborn, more determined to win playing like the Punk of Las Vegas (he had ta certain John McEnroe in his corner). Just as it happened in 1995, in spite of the common skepticism, he still flew from the finish line, only to surrender to the extraordinary Pete Sampras after snatching a tie-break of hope. Keeping yet another dream alive, as his almost epic character demanded. Becker was a rebel. The grass was his court: “I liked to take risks”. Calculated risks that mad Dad-Tiriac turn up his nose: “A tennis player has to think a little.” Just as he turned up the noses of his beloved Germany, who he adored and where he always filled the stadiums in Frankfurt and Hannover for the Masters. “I think this victory will change the court in Germany because before we did not have a leader”, Bum Bum had predicted only moments after his triumph of '85. But he quickly added, toning down his passion: “Tennis is important, but it is not the most important thing in life”. That which he would omit to tell his people was that he, the Aryan hero with his white skin, who was so good at tennis and had revived the nation’s sporting pride that had lain dormant since the glories of the Baron Von Cramm during the ‘30s, would marry Barbara Feltus, a beautiful model of color. And his people did not approve. The nation hated “the black witch” and would not forgive him, despite the fact that he had paid millions of Marks in tax arrears to give up his tax residence in Monte Carlo and return to live in Munich, Bavaria, so he could cheer on his beloved Bayern.

Portrait of Boris Becker of Germany during the Men's Singles Quarter Final of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship against Michael Stich on 29 Jun 1993 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon in London, England. (Photo by Bob Martin/Getty Images)

Unfortunately the rebel that played out positively in sport did not always manifest in real life, with Boris often choosing the wrong path. He would have an illegitimate daughter in shameful circumstances, and although he threw himself into many entrepreneurial enterprises with his usual ardour, he did so without scoring the points that had made his name on the tennis court. He failed to  become No. 1 in the world, and did not succeed in winning more trophies to add to his six Slams, collecting two marriages, a divorce, four children, and numerous scandals instead. As a commentator he did not manage to conquer the screen, but as coach of the number 1, Novak Djokovic, he rediscovered his mastery of the service and offensive push. Never stray too far beyond the bottom line, rather risk a step closer and the chance to control an exchange that give it up by being a meter back. Quite the rebel.

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