Michael Stich, Wimbledon 1991

From Boris Becker’s autobiography, The Player:

I was twenty three years old and feeling low again, fed up with this existence in which I did nothing but hit tennis balls. No social life, no friends – the tennis court was the focal point of my world. I could only define myself through tennis: every time I lost, my self-confidence was shot to pieces, and every time I was flying once more. This couldn’t go on for ever.

I was in this state when I prepared for Wimbledon 1991, and this time I had competition from Germany: Michael Stich. I knew him from our Davis Cup team. It hadn’t been easy for him there. We were a tight-knit group and rejected the new boy at first. He in turn appeared to me aloof and reserved, and the others turned their backs on him both during training and at dinner.

So we were already familiar with each other when we met at Wimbledon. We even practiced together, and we spoke every day. This was not how I usually behaved, and in some ways it was dangerous. I need tunnel vision, quarantine.
In the semi-final, Stich defeated Stefan Edberg 4-6 7-6 7-6 7-6. Thanks to Michael, I became world number one again. I’d already had the number one position in January, but I’d been toppled. After Michael’s semi-final I played mine, against David Wheaton, and against all expectations I managed to get into the final once more after beating him 6-4 7-6 7-5.

That evening I sat in my rented house in Wimbledon, on my own again, of course. I cried tears of relief: I was world number one, right at the top. I felt my nervousness disappear. The pressure was off. I decided that evening that if I beat Stich I would retire – at the top, as Wimbledon winner and world number one. The mountaineer Reinhold Messner once said that the most important thing to think about when you’re on the summit is how you’re going to get down again. I didn’t want a fall, but a controlled descent into a different life. Fortunately, it turned out differently. Or should I say unfortunately?

I behaved badly in the match against Stich. I whinged, moaned and complained. Subconsciously I was probably asking myself what was going to happen next. Michael played well but I was exhausted and drained. I had problems from game one. Stich had the first first break point, which he won. He returned my first serves easily; it was as if my mind was somewhere else altogether. I talked to myself constantly, the usual Becker-on-Becker dialogue. In the second set I gave away a 3-1 lead when I lost my service game. If Michael didn’t make any big mistakes, he’d have it in the bag. He wasn’t under any great pressure.

I had no grudge against him – he was a mate from the Davis Cup team. Was it this that held me back? Would it have been different if my opponent had been Edberg? Of course I wanted to win, but we didn’t have our horns locked. It wasn’t all-out war. I couldn’t find my rhythm, and Stich won 6-4 7-6 6-4.

My fellow countryman had won Wimbledon, the second German to do so in the history of the tournament. Von Cramm had reached the finals in 1935, 1936 and 1937, and Bungert in 1967 – the winners had been their British, American and Australian opponents. Michael is the exact opposite of me. Pilic once said, ‘Boris is a world star, and Michael is a world-class player.’ The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote ‘Becker is admired, Stich respected.’ I can’t see inside Michael Stich, but I’m not sure he ever wanted in the limelight. The journalists were persistent, and often cruel:

‘The Germans love Boris because he is how they want to be. They don’t like Stich because he is how they are,’ wrote The Times.