Boris Becker – An Explosive Talent

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Most of the top players in the game come on the scene gradually, usually after a successful junior career and after a period of ‘apprenticeship’ on the main Tour before they become household names. Not so with Boris Becker (Profile & Bio).

In 1985, the then 17-year old German exploded on the scene by first winning the Queen’s Club event and then two weeks later, taking the Wimbledon title against the South African, Kevin Curren. From a year earlier when he turned pro at 16 to mid-1985, he had taken the tennis world by storm. That 1985 Wimbledon victory made him the youngest ever male winner of a Grand Slam singles event – a record that was only beaten by Michael Chang’s winning of the French Open a few years later. Becker still holds the record for Wimbledon, however. Not since the precocious talents of Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall in the early 1950s had Wimbledon seen anything quite like Becker.

What made his ascent to fame even more remarkable was the fact that he hailed from a nation seen at the time as a major underachiever in world tennis. In the pre-WW2 years, Germany had their von Cramm and Henkel and in the 1960s, Wilhelm Bungert, but no-one in recent times to set the world alight quite like Becker. His career also coincided with that of Steffi Graf and Michael Stich, all making West Germany a force to be reckoned with in world tennis.

Although not among the very top echelon of all-time players, Becker’s six Grand Slam singles titles alone put him up among the top 20 to 30 – . Tennis Magazine, in fact, put him in 18th place of the World’s Top 40. Those six Grand Slams included three Wimbledon titles, two Australian titles and one US Open. Only the French Open of the four majors was to elude him, owing in the main to his ‘slash and burn’ style of play not best suited to the slow clay surface. His Grand Slam-winning career spanned an impressive 11 years from the historic Wimbledon win in 1985 to his 1996 Australian Open win.

He brought home the Davis Cup to West Germany on two consecutive occasions (1988 and 1989) and also won the Hopman Cup twice with Germany. Famously partnering Michael Stich, he also won an Olympic Gold Medal in doubles in the 1992 Barcelona Games. His career title tally was an impressive 49 – a total many would be proud of.

Becker had a game that was ideally suited to grass and which flowered during the Wimbledon Championships. His playing style also gave him an advantage on the relatively fast surface of indoor carpet. He had a strong serve, a good volley game and sound ground strokes. To these skills he added an explosive athleticism which often saw him diving dramatically across the (mainly grass) court. Watching Boris play was always good value for his ‘never say die’ attitude.

Becker’s career was also in part defined by his rivalries with other top players of his era. Chief among these was his rivalry with the Swede Stefan Edberg. Becker came out on top decisively in that rivalry, having won 25 of to their career encounters to Edberg’s 10. Having peaked first, Becker was determined to jealously guard his position from the Swedish ‘new kid on the block’. However, it would have continued to rankle with the ultra-competitive Becker that of his three head-to-head encounters in the Wimbledon singles final, Edberg bested him by 2-1.

Becker also had a close rivalry with Ivan Lendl although the latter’s career went into decline sooner than the young German’s. That said, Lendl comes out on top by 12-10. Becker came out on top against Mats Wilander by 7-3 and against McEnroe by 7-2, over both of whom, it has to be acknowledged, Becker had the relative ‘youth’ advantage. Although they were near-contemporaries, Becker and Pat Cash had only one encounter together on the main Tour which took place at the 1990 Wimbledon, with Becker coming out on top. Among his close peers, therefore, Becker had a very good record.

The fact that Becker never won a Grand Slam singles after the age of 28 must have come as a disappointment to him and to the tennis public – indications of a precocious talent that did not quite reach its full potential. That said, he could be forgiven for the fact that the latter years of his career coincided with the ascent of both Sampras and Agassi who went on to dominate the 1990s.

Boris has become known almost as much for his exploits off the court as much as on it. His marital and romantic relationships have been, to put it mildly, colourful and with his big personality he seems to thrive on the oxygen of publicity. In latter years, he has become a respected pundit on, for example, the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage – a role he now shares with another ‘elder statesmen’, his former tough adversary, John McEnroe. Ever-mindful of his stellar career as a player at Wimbledon, the British public has taken Becker to their heart – he is now seen as Britain’s favourite German. Although a winner at Flushing Meadow and a World No. 1 on several occasions, he would not have had the same appeal on the other side of the Atlantic as he did in Europe and in particular, in Britain. That popularity must owe its origins to the huge adulation that followed his first two Wimbledon titles.

Where does Becker stand among the all-time greats? With six Grand Slam titles, he probably lies in the middle range of top players in the Open era. He shares that position, amongst others, with Djokovic and Edberg and he stands one behind Newcombe, McEnroe and Wilander who have seven. Unlike the very best players of all time like Sampras and Federer, Becker did not dominate the Tour during his era in the same way. Players like Edberg, Cash, Lendl, McEnroe and Wilander were still around snapping at his heels.

Being the youngest man ever to have won the Wimbledon singles will always be an outstanding achievement and a record very hard to overturn. Some top players have receded quietly into retirement, but Becker still remains active as a Seniors player and a commentator, ever the explosive presence in the game.

Paul McElhinney
September 2013

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