Tennis season is upon us, with the world’s sport media descending onto Roland Garros before the annual movement to Queen’s Club and then finally SW19. This meant Boris Becker had plenty to talk about, and was on sparkling form, when I spoke to him this past week after his talk at the Union. If this was anything to go by then BBC audiences are in for a treat when the blonde Bavarian graces living rooms around the country during Wimbledon.
Few know more, or are more qualified to talk about the world’s premier tennis tournament than Becker, of course. Along with two Australian Opens and one US, he won Wimbledon three times over the course of a jewelled career, most famously his first at 17. He’s disarmingly modest about this baffling achievement, saying of it when juxtaposed with what most people are up at the same age that ‘everyone has their own path’, which made me feel just a little better – perhaps the Arthur Ashe stadium beckons next year. The journey was a bit less monomaniacal than what most aspirant tennis players can expect these days: ‘I picked up my first tennis racket at the age of three, but I was lucky my parents allowed me to play football, basketball, and to cross-country ski. Only later, when I was 14, did I realise tennis was my number one sport.’
Even after this though, he had to persuade his school, which was fairly level-headed about the whole affair. He negotiated two years off to prove himself, and after this he had a meeting with the school officials. ‘I had won two Wimbledons, was number two in the world, and had a couple of million in the bank and still the director asked – are you sure?’ The whole thing must’ve been slightly surreal.
Becker isn’t sure why there haven’t been many recently able to compete at Grand Slam level at the sort of age he started out at – Nadal aside, they’ve been rare. ‘I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing that they start them so young now,’ he says, adding that to avoid the kind of career-shock described by David Foster Wallace in his piece ‘String Theory’ young players need ‘a supporting cast, family friends, to tell you you’re good but not great, and maybe you should finish school and have something to fall back on’.
For himself though he’s obviously glad he pushed on. ‘My best years were 1989 to 1991 – that was when I played my best tennis. I was used to the media attention and spent a lot of time and effort becoming a better tennis player.’ After these glory years he persevered. He doesn’t think there’s enough time in a modern player’s life to plan out an end-of-career strategy. But, he says, ‘If you have the character and courage to play it out, accept you’re older and that it’s OK to reach a quarter-final now, you don’t have to win, and not beat yourself up. I was able to do that, played less and less and worse and worse and slowly came down the rankings. A couple of wins still and the drug slowly left. It’s tough to do if you’re used to winning all the time, and then suddenly you’re 15th in the world, which isn’t bad! But you’re not number one anymore.’
He doesn’t quite remember how the broadcasting gig came about, whether he was sought out or chased it up himself, but it’s been a source of happiness since. ‘I find it rewarding, I find it satisfying – it gives me my youth back. Walking through the ground talking about something I know pretty well, it’s a good feeling.’ Sharing a commentary box with John Lloyd and Tim Henman, he feels his experience gives him an edge, that ‘they’re great guys and I love commentating with them but they never won a tournament. Bottom line is that they don’t know what it feels like to hold a trophy.’ Apart from the commentary he spends his time these days either with his family or on the European Poker Tour. Having had a bit of fun with the outstandingly entertaining Mansour Bahrami and co on the Masters circuit, he decided it wasn’t for him.
Punditry keeps him pretty busy, however. His thoughts on the state of the men’s game? ‘Behind the top four I don’t see anybody! Where’s Berdych? I saw Tomic, but where is he now? Del Potro for a while but then he was injured out for a year. There is one guy from Canada, Milos Raonic, he’s young too and has a big game. Maybe him.’ He’s sure the summer should throw up some new candidates for the next big thing candidacy though – ‘Queen’s, Wimbledon, then the Olympics – it’s a summer of tennis.’ A summer of tennis that the marvellous Münchner will be looking over and analysing with interest, along with flirting with Sue Barker and ribbing John Inverdale. We wouldn’t have it any other way.