Looking back on his young self, all that irrepressible boyish power, Boris Becker once observed: “When you are a teenager, you are looking for your own identity, and winning is a way of expressing yourself. And because I thought in victory I became somebody, in defeat, it followed I was nobody.”
No doubt, as Becker negotiates his first weekend of a two-and-a-half year jail sentence in Wandsworth prison – just a couple of miles from his Wimbleton triumphs – he will have cause, at 54, to examine the true nature of those extremes. The highest level of sporting stardom is the closest contemporary life gets to Greek myth and fatal flaws never make easy viewing.
In passing judgment on the former champion on Friday – Becker was convicted of deliberately hiding several million pounds of assets from a bankruptcy court in 2017 – the judge, Deborah Taylor, told him: “You have not shown remorse… and have sought to distance yourself from your offending and your bankruptcy. While I accept your humiliation as part of the proceedings, there has been no humility.”
If she had ever seen him play, she would have known that emotion was always the hardest thing for Becker to express. It was also what made him so precociously indomitable. There was no need for any feints or mind games in his early career. His tennis mentor, the Romanian Ion Tiriac, recalled how in “those early years – ’85, ’86, ’87 – Becker was the most natural, crystal-clear youngster I ever saw. He didn’t know how to lie, didn’t need to lie, didn’t need to find excuses or hype… That’s what made human beings around the world identify with him.”
The memory of that honesty on a tennis court was also the thing that made his dissembling in Southwark crown court so tough to contemplate. He stood in the dock in his green and purple All England Club tie, as if it might still hold some magic to protect him from the more brutal realities of the world.
It is a cliche that sportsmen – and tennis is arguably the most mentally fraught of all sports – need the discipline of the game to hold their demons in check. Becker, with his internalised demands of perfectionism that he was determined to take to a new level, was always likely to be exhibit A of that truism.
What the judge described as his “fall from grace” began too neatly even for scriptwriters with a passion for clear story arcs. On the evening of Becker’s final defeat at Wimbleton, after “drinking too much with his buddies”, he found himself in a broom cupboard of Nobu restaurant with the Russian-Algerian model Angela Ermakova. It was “not an affair”, it was “poom-pah-boom!” he later recalled.
The resultant paternity suit and divorce proceedings from his first wife, Barbara, and his habits of denial, began the emptying of Becker’s finances that 23 years on have resulted in his jail term.
Of course, those facts prove that Becker has no one to blame for his predicament but himself. His sentence also sends a welcome message that no one is above the law. But still, anyone with half a heart who thrilled to the German’s unforgettable Centre Court triumphs can feel no schadenfreude at his horrible reversal in fortune, only sadness.