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.

Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, Wimbledon 1989

Article by Barry Lorge, June 1990

At the Baden Tennis Center in the Heidelberg suburb of Leimen, the most productive of 13 regional training facilities operated by the West German Tennis Federation, coach Boris Breskvar finishes hitting with three youngsters and invites a visitor into his office. The wall behind his office is covered with photos, a couple of which he points with particular pride. There he is with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker at the European junior championships in 1981. And five years earlier, a group photo of the Baden kids, when Steffi had just turned 7 and Becker was a lad of 8. Surely another picture is destined for this gallery. Graf and Becker, at 20 and 21, posing together last July, after she won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon for the second straight year and he captured the men’s crown he held in 1985 and ’86. If you perused newstands in Germany the week after this extraordinary “Deutschland Doppel,” they dominated the covers. One magazine even had them dressed in full regalia like king and queen.

Before last Wimbledon, Becker and his girlfriend, Karen Schultz, went out for dinner with Graf and her coach, Pavel Slozil. Becker and Graf also met a couple of times during the tournament and talked.
“In other tournaments, we saw each other and said hello and that was it,” Graf says. “This was the first time we communicated more than before, and we both came out as the winner. Afterward, we hugged. It was a great moment for both of us because we have known each other quite a while.”
A fairytale come true, Becker says, “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls, so when I was almost 9 and she was 7, I all the time had to hit with her. From then on we more or less went through the same tournament and matches and we all the time kept a relationship… It’s impossible to think something like this can happen.”

GRATIFYING: It was particularly gratifying for Breskvar, who worked with Graf occassionally, and coached Becker daily, from the time they were barely out of kindergarten until they were teenagers. He had them hit against each other – not only because Graf was the top girl in Baden and Becker the runt of the region’s promising boys, but also because he saw in them similar stuff of champions.
“Steffi was (an) exceptional talent, and also mentally very, very strong,” he says. “She was never afraid. You know when it’s 5-all in the final set, they are all afraid a bit. They push the ball a little. Not Steffi and Boris. They were never afraid. They also lost matches, 5-7 in the third set, but they never pushed their shots. Also, they liked to compete.”
Breskvar, 47, who played internationally for his native Yugoslavia and has been employed by the German and Baden federations for 18 years, was at Wimbledon the second week of last year’s tournament with a team of German juniors. He watched the men’s final at Centre Court, guest of Becker’s Romanian manager – Svengali, Ion Tiriac, an old friend from their touring days.

An outgoing, expressive man with burning brown eyes, Breskvar saw Graf and Becker hold their trophies aloft and thought back to the kids on his wall. “For a coach,” he says, “this is a super feeling, something really special.” Becker grew up in Leimen, a town of 20,000 previously best known for producing cement. His home was less than a mile from the Blau-Weiss (blue-white) Tennis Club, whose indoor courts are now called Boris Becker Halle. Becker started hitting against a wall at the age of 5. After the Baden centre was built across the street in 1976, he practised there almost exclusively. Boris’ father, architect Karl Heinz Becker, designed both the tennis centre and Breskvar’s house. The coach discovered young Boris at a talent search at Heidelberg Schwarz and Geld (Black and Gold) Club in 1974, and worked with him for 10 years.
When Becker was 16, Breskvar turned him over to Gunther Bosch, a Romanian born friend of Tiriac; it was a year before Becker became the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon.
“His father told me, ‘Take care of my boy, and I don’t interfere. You must do everything,” Breskvar says. “Before he went to Bosch, he asked me three times to travel and coach Boris. I told him I prefer to stay in Leimen. I don’t want my boss to be one young guy. Nothing against Boris, who is a very good friend, but I prefer to work with a lot of juniors.” Breskvar’s relationship with Graf is decidedly cooler. She is from Bruhl, a town of 14,000 a few miles northwest of Leimen, closer to industrial Mannheim. In his instructional book – Boris Becker’s Tennis : The Making of a Champion, which has been published in Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, England and Holland- Breskvar recalled his introduction.
“She was only 6 when she first came to us, but she already had a fairly reasonable technique. She had learned the basics from her father, who was a tennis coach . I can clearly recall the first time we met. Peter Graf came up to me and said, ‘I’ve found out as much as I can about you, and I think you’re the right man to train Steffi – because one day she’s going to be No.1 in the world.

“I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that I was talking to yet another of these ambitious fathers who think the whole world is just waiting to see their child play. By the time we (had) completed the half-hour training session, I was greatly impressed, and inwardly asked Peter Graf to forgive me for thinking ill of him, for Steffi really did have talent.”

Her father groomed Graf’s game and is still her principal advisor, although former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player Slozil also travels and hits with her. Breskvar believes that the Baden centre played more of a part in Graf’s ascent than the family is willing to admit. Steffi says: “My coach was my father. When he didn’t have so much time because he was giving lessons himself, I went to the centre. I played there until I was 12 or 13 – maybe 15 or 20 times a year.”

Steffi Graf and Boris Becker

ENERGETIC: Breskvar is an energetic lefthander who puts an intriguing variety of spins on tennis balls and converses in 6 languages (German, English, French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and his native Slovenian). He does not dwell in the past, which in his case includes being the third man on Yugoslav Davis Cup teams that featured two players ranked in the world’s top 10, Nikki Pilic (now the German Davis Cup captain) and Zeljko Franulovic. At the Baden centre, he has a number of promising prospects, including Anke Huber, 13, already the best junior girl in Germany and Romanian defector Mirela Vadulescu, 12, who has moved to Leimen with her family and was signed to a contract by Tiriac last year. Breskvar smilingly predicts, “they will be playing each other in the Wimbledon final in five years.” These days, however, the coach happily obliges frequent requests to reminisce about Graf and Becker. They were both exposed early to a sophisticated programme that incorporates not only traditional training in technique and tactics, but also physical and psychological conditioning. Breskvar works closely with Prof. Hermann Reider, director of the Sports Science Institute at Heidelberg’s celebrated university.

“For five years he helped me with Boris and Steffi, making psychological tests, motivational tests, studies,” Breskvar says. “He agrees with me that it is very important to train children not only in tennis, but in other ball sports.” Breskvar points to basketball hoops and goals for football and field hockey on an area paved in asphalt, adjacent to the four red clay courts at his centre. Here players develop their sense of space, movement and what is possible to do with a ball and bodies. “We play these sports a lot, as well as sprints and jumps and other athletic drills for conditioning,” Breskvar says. “I think this is very important when children are 9,10,11, because you must play a lot of combinations in your head. How to beat the opponent, move, set up a score. If you can transfer this to tennis, you can improve a lot. Steffi is a wonderful basketball player. Boris is good in basketball and very, very strong in football.”

Breskvar encourages an all court game, with particular emphasis on the style for which a given player is suited by physique and personality. “We take all the children to a medical centre and make an X-ray here,” he says, pointing to the wrist, “so we can see how tall they will be when they grow up. We can tell within two centimeters. We did this also with Steffi and Boris. This is very important because Boris was very small when he was 9 years old, but since I know he is going to be 190 centimeters, I must practise a lot of serve and net with him. If I know someone is going to be 166 or 168, we must practise a lot of topspin and ground strokes.”

AGGRESSIVE: Despite his diminutive size, Becker was already aggressive the first time Breskvar saw him, lunging and diving and making the horizontal leaps at the net that have become his trademark from the grass of Wimbledon to less forgiving hard courts. “Boris tried for everything, but his technique was not so good – tennis of jumping,” Breskvar recalls. “He didn’t know how to roll. Knees and elbows scraped, blood everywhere. I said,’Hey, stop, don’t do this. You hurt yourself.’ He said,’No no,it’s ok and again he does it. I liked him from the first moment, but I stopped the session because I was afraid he would break some bones. I told him,’O.K. in two days you can come to the centre and begin training with me,’ but I thought to myself first I must teach him to jump properly.”

Breskvar ordered gym mats, which still hang on the walls alongside the centre’s three indoor courts, and tought Becker to land like an acrobat. “After, I encouraged him to jump,” Breskvar says. “This is his personality and an important part of his game, for three reasons. First, he can reach more balls. More important is the psychological effect. When Boris jumps and gets the ball, the next time the opponent thinks, ‘I must play exactly on the line.’ He tries to hit into an area half as small, and that is very difficult, and often he is hitting out. The other advantage is this jumping is very attractive for the spectators, and pretty soon they are all on Boris’s side. This is a great plus.”

Graf has improved her volley, but favours playing from the back court, winning with a lethal topspin forehand and quickness and concentration that are almost as intimidating. Graf has outstanding hand-eye coordination, reflexes and racquet control to go with her speed afoot. Breskvar remembers the first time she picked up a plastic hockey stick and joined in one of his post-practice scrimmages: “The others looked on in astonishment as she stopped, dribbled and hit the ball as if she had practiced the game for years.” Graf also loves basketball, but says she was disappointed that Breskvar wouldn’t let her play soccer “because I could easily get injured.” Breskvar says that tests showed Graf had weak ankles, for which trainer Erko Prull designed a special exercise programme. She still works on conditioning with Prull, who she calls “a very good friend of our family.” It was in large part because their drive to succeed was so similar that Breskvar had Becker hit with Graf. “They practiced together sometimes, but not a lot,” Breskvar says. “This was better training for Steffi than Boris. I like him to play with older, stronger boys. It is important to find the right sparring partner- somebody who is a little bit better, but not too much.”

Graf realises now that she and Becker had some similarities. “Temperamentally, yes,” she says. “I have always been somebody who criticised myself a lot. When I didn’t play well, I was getting mad. Boris was the same.”

At the time, though, she didn’t sense how much alike they were. “Anyway, we were kids,” she says. “At that age, nobody really expected Boris would become the player he is. They thought I had much more chance.” What gave Breskvar a vision of the future was that Becker shared Graf’s uncompromising determination. One of the coach’s friends manufactured Capri-Sonne, a fruit-juice made in Heidelberg, which became the unofficial currency of training wagers. “Boris would ask all the time, how many will you give me if I win?” Breskvar recalls. “He was already a real professional. It was incredible. The more drinks at stake the better he was playing. When he was 14 or 15, I was still stronger than he was, but we had good matches- 6-3 or 6-4 every set. One day he asked, ‘How many drinks will you give me if I beat you?’ I said ‘The whole box.’ He was trying like a madman, and he beat me, first time. Boris is a born competitor.” This begs the question that is widely debated, within Germany and abroad. Was the emergence of Graf and Becker from the same corner of the country without much tennis tradition a quirk of history or the result of a programme capable of producing more like them?

Boris BEcker and Steffi Graf, 1985

FAIRY TALES: Becker said at Wimbledon that his and Graf’s success was so improbable that they will be grandfather and grandmother before their countrymen realise what they have accomplished. Graf also says it was the stuff of fairy tales: “What else can you call it? I mean, you can’t build up two players like that. I don’t see it happening again. It’s just luck, coincidence.”

Breskvar disagrees. “They are great talents,” he says. “Without talent you cannot work. But I also think that we have done a lot with those players. You ask Mr. Graf it is only him. This is difficult. But I think this centre was very important. It was the first in Germany, and without the opportunity to practice every day without paying one Deutschmark, over eight years, it would be very, very difficult.” The chief coach of the German Tennis Federation calculated that Becker’s court time, coaching and travel as a junior had been subsidised to the tune of $500,000.

“It is too much money for most families,” Breskvar says. “We pay everything. We pay everything. This is very important. A champion must be born with talent, but he must also have the environment. You can have a great natural talent for skiing, but if you live in the Sahara, you cannot win an Olmypic gold medal in skiing.”

Good genes and God-given gifts need to be nurtured. Raw potential needs to be recognised, moulded, motivated. “Boris was not the best in Germany when he was 12, 13, 14” Breskvar says. “He was about No.10. But when our federation was deciding where to put the money, I told our President, ‘I think Boris will be the best. We try with him,’ I don’t think it would happen without our help. There are so many players now, a champion must be something special, and he must be very well managed. The times are over when talent alone will rise to the top.”

Says Tiriac: “Boris Breskvar is a guy who had, and has, very good kids, so the results prove that he knows what he is doing…..Boris and Steffi emerging from the same area at the same time? That is an accident with ingredients that helped. Like tennis courts to play (on). Like parents connected with tennis. Like Breskvar to discover and develop the talent. If there are no courts and coaches, it is impossible to recognise a gift for tennis.”

The Baden tennis centre where Becker and Graf hit against each other as kids – must be recognised either as the setting, of an extraordinary fairy tale, or as a contemporary cradle of champions.

Michael Chang and Stefan Edberg, Roland Garros 1989

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

The Roland Garros Stadium in Paris has come to be regarded as a graveyard for the American dream. Few Americans are attuned to sliding about on Europe’s slow, loose-top surfaces and patiently manoeuvring for their points. In terms of temperament and background, the nation’s leading players have mostly favoured hustle and bustle, fast action, and short points. It may be that a series of six Davis Cup defeats in Paris in consecutive years (1928-33) gave Americans an enduring, negative attitude towards the alien and hostile territory of Roland Garros. There ensued, with a hint of sour grapes, sporadic comments disparaging the French Open championships. Some Americans avoided the tournament, or regarded it merely as rigorous preparation for Wimbledon. Whatever the reasons, until 1989 only five Americans had won the men’s title, all between 1938 and 1955, and in the next 33 years only five more had managed to reach the final. It took a little Chinaman to show them how to win the toughest of all tournaments. […]

Chang‘s parents, both reasearch chemists, have done their best to merge Eastern and Western cultural values and the blend is reflected in his tennis. Moreover, Chang has been a devout Christian since 1988. He is adamant that it is for the Lord to decide whether he wins or loses: but equally adamant that he will not get a nod from the Almighty unless he bends mind and muscle with total commitment. […]

Agassi, almost two years Chang’s senior, reached the French Open and US semi-finals in 1988 and looked the obvious man to carry the American flag when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe passed it on. Chang gave us pause for thought in 1989 but Agassi may have the more exciting future if he can tighten his concentration and, tactically, learn to respect the odds – which should come naturally to any man born and brought up at Las Vegas.
Of the other players born in 1970 or later, four could be particularly worth watching: Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, both Americans, Goran Ivanisevic (a Yugoslav from Split, which also produced Nikki Pilic, one of the most engagingly argumentative chaps to enliven the early years of open competition), and Sergi Bruguera of Barcelona, who charmed us by the manner of his progress to the last 16 of the 1989 French championships. The long-limbed Bruguera has an elegant command of spins and angles and could develop into an enchanting clay-court expert. But one never knows what the future will have to say to the young.

Back to Chang, whose mother travels with him as ‘road manager’ and also looks after the cooking and laundry, joins him on fishing trips, and teaches him Chinese. In 1987, at the age of 15 years and 5 months, Chang became the youngest winner of the US boys’ 18 singles title. This was much to the credit of his fist coach, his father, a self-taught player who had taken up the game two years after Chang was born. Later, Chang was to benefit from the acquired wisdom of Brian Gottfried and Jose Higueras. His 1987 boys’ title earned him a place in the US Championships, in which he beat Paul McNamee. In 1988 he turned professional and headed for Paris, where he was overawed and given a hiding by McEnroe. But Chang had Leconte on the ropes for two spectacular sets at Wimbledon and at Flushing Meadow he beat the seeded Jonas Svensson and came from behind to win two consecutive five-set matches and reach the last 16. Agassi stopped him.

None of this prepared us – nor, one suspects, did it totally prepare Chang – for what happened in Paris in 1989. He had been a professional for a little less than a year and had played in only four Grand Slam events. But he came from behind to beat the first and third seeds: Ivan Lendl by 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-3 6-3 in the round of 16 and Stefan Edberg by 6-1 3-6 4-6 6-4 6-2 in the final. The Lendl match lasted four hours and 39 minutes, the final three hours and 41 minutes. At the risk of being too glib, one suggests that Lendl was outsmarted, Edberg outlasted.

Lendl did not take enough tactical initiatives. He seemed to think that if he kept pounding away from the baseline the lad would eventually be too tired and too inexperienced to do anything but lose. Chang did tire, too, but only in the legs – and Lendl was not cute enough to exploit blatant indications of cramp. Mentally, Chang was the sharper of the two when it mattered. Serving at 4-3 and 15-30 in the fifth set, Chang surprised Lendl with an underarm service that left Lendl embarrassingly exposed at the net. When Lendl was serving at 3-5 and 15-40 he missed his first service – and Chang wobbled forward on rubber-like legs to receeive the second ball while standing between the baseline and service line. The crowd roared at the little chap’s cheek. Lendl paused, to think about it: and then served another fault and was out of the tournament. Those two ploys by Chang were legitimate tests of Lendl’s alertness, nerves, and technical resilience; and there were no complaints from the ever-pragmatic Czechoslovakian.

The final was shorter because Edberg’s forecourt game abbreviated the rallies, one way or the other. In the first set Chang was all over him. Then Edberg took charge, finding his rythm with service, approach shot, and volley – and playing discreetly aggressive clay-court tennis to lead by two sets to one. The crux came in the fourth set. After an early break each way, Edberg had a total of ten more break points, the last of which would have left him serving for the match. But it was Chang who broke through, with the help of some good returns and, from Edberg, a few tired errors. That was how it was in the fifth set, too. Some of the spring had gone from Edberg’s legs and he was no longer quite confident enough on the forehand or quite quick enough when going to the net. But it was a classic final, an exemplary contrast between a nimble and crafty baseliner and a specialist in the service and volley.

Not that Chang could be dismissed as merely a baseliner. That was the basis of his game but he was more versatile and assertive than the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, and Lendl. His groundtrokes were admiably sound, whether he was going cross-court or down the line. Given a short ball, Chang went for a winner or a penetrating approach shot – and, rather like Ken Rosewall, ghosted his way to the net as imperceptibly as a gentle breeze on a summer night. He seemed to have the knack of being in two places at once: and was impressively secure with his volleys and overheads. Chang took the ball early when returning service. As he is only 5ft 8in tall this was particularly prudent when he was challenged by Edberg’s high-kicking ball.

Chang’s outstanding qualities lay in the brain and the legs. He was always thinking and never missed a trick. His quick anticipation and sturdy legs enabled him to parry most thrusts, until his opponent made a mistake or gave him the chance for a telling riposte – a passing shot or lob, or a sudden acceleration of pace. There was logic in everything Chang did and displayed an instinctive flair for reading his opponent’s game and making astute, split-second decisions. Against Lendl and Edberg in turn he gave wonderfully precocious deadspan performances. Ruminating on Chang’s contemplative bent for fishing one felt a wave a sympathy for fish.

Chang was brought up on hard courts but may excel only on clay, as he did in 1989. He will grow stronger but is unlikely to get much taller. One cannot be optimistic about his chances of acquiring the power to win major titles on the faster surfaces.
We noted that, for all Chang’s cunning and tenacity, he was outgunned by Tim Mayotte in the 1989 Wimbledon and US championships. Like Wilander and Boris Becker, who also won Grand slam championships at the age of 17, Chang has built a big reputation on small foundations – in terms of experience, that is. But his place in the game’s history is aleady unique: and that has to be a comforting feeling for a God-fearing young angler who hooked a couple of very big fish while he was still settling down on the bank.