Wimbledon 1985: Boris Becker, the man on the moon
“I’m serving for the championship. five steps to the baseline. My arm is getting heavy, wobbly. I look at my feet and almost stumble. My body starts to shake violently. I feel I could lose all control. I’m standing at the same baseline from where I served to 1-0 in the first set. 5-4; the end is getting nearer. I have to find a way to get these four points home.
My opponent, Kevin Curren, piles on the pressure. 0-15. 15 all. 30-15. 40-15. I want, want, want victory. I look only at my feet, at my racket. I don’t hear a thing. I’m trying to keep control. Breathe in. Serve. Like a parachute jump. Double fault. 40-30. How on earth can I place the ball in that shrinking box over there on the other side of the net? I focus on throwing the ball and then I hit it.
The serve was almost out of this world, or at least its results were. This victory was my own personal moon landing. 1969 Apollo 11, 1985 Wimbledon 1. Back then, Neil Armstrong jumped from the ladder of the space capsule Eagle into the moondust and transmitted his historic words to the people of the world: ‘That’s one small step for man, one great leap for mankind.’ But I couldn’t muster words to meet the occasion. I could only think, Boy oh boy, this can’t be true.
The tension disappeared instantly and I felt slightly shaky. My heart was beating fast. I left crying to the others, though: my coach Günther Bosch, my father and my mother. ‘With the passion of a Friedrich Nietzsche or Ludwig van Beethoven,’ wrote Time in its next issue, ‘this unseeded boy from Leimen turned the tennis establishment of Wimbledon on its head.’
Although my Swedish colleague Bjorn Borg was only seventeen when he entered the Wimbledon arena, he didn’t win until three years later. John McEnroe started at eighteen but didn’t hold the trophy until he was twenty-two. Jimmy Connors was twenty-one; Rod Laver, one of the greatest of our time, twenty-two. I was just seventeen years and 227 days old; I couldn’t legally drive in Germany. I cut my own hair, and my mother sent me toothpaste because she was worried about my teeth. ‘Boy King,’ lauded the British newspapers. ‘King Boris the First.’ Meanwhile, King Boris was in the bath enjoying a hot soak. Back then, a physiotherapist was beyond my means.
From that day on, nothing in my life remained the same. Boris from Leimen died at Wimbledon in 1985 and a new Boris emerged, who was taken at once into public ownership.
Goodbye, freedom. Hands reaching out to you, tearing the buttons from your jacket; fingernails raking over your skin as if they wanted a piece of your flesh. A photograph, a signature – no, two, three, more . . . Love letters, begging letters, blackmail. Bodyguards on the golf course and on the terraces at Bayern Munich. Security cameras in the trees of our home, paparazzi underneath the table or in the toilets. Exclusive — see Becker peeing.
And everything I did had consequences. One word of protest would lead to a headline. An innocent kiss would appear on the front page. A defeat and Bild would cry for the nation. A victory and the black, red and gold of the German flag was everywhere. Our Boris.
The experts would write that it was my willpower and the ‘boom boom’ of my serve that got me through. But it isn’t explained away so easily. On that day of my first victory at Wimbledon, forces were involved that went beyond mere willpower. Instinct made me do the right thing in the decisive moment, even if I didn’t know I was going to do it. My heart was big, my spirit was strong, my instincts were sharp – only my flesh was sometimes weak. And no one can get out of their own skin.”