By Michael Janofsky “New York Times” November 14, 1989
For three days last week, Steffi Graf tried to telephone a friend in West Berlin, only to be greeted by his answering machine and its ebullient message.
“Sorry, I’m not here,” she recalled his voice saying. “I’m out partying and won’t be home for a while.”
Graf laughed in the retelling and sounded almost jealous, as if there could be better places to be this week and more important things to do than playing for the Virginia Slims championship at Madison Square Garden. Partying with her friend at the Berlin Wall, for example.
“For everyone, I think it’s something to do,” she said almost wistfully. “I would love to have done it, just to be a part of the moment.”
Like millions of other people around the world, Graf has watched the recent changes in East Germany with joyous and stunned amazement. The best player in women’s tennis and the No. 1 seeded player in the Slims Championships, she has found the scenes of East Berliners exploring West Berlin that much more poignant because of her connection to fans in both republics.
More than a third of the mail to her home in Bruehl, West Germany, she said, is from East Germans. Once in a while the message inside has been more pointed, reflecting the harsher realities of life where many restrictions apply.
One letter, she remembered, came from a teen-age player who wanted badly to compete in West Germany.
“She asked me if I could help her in any way,” Graf said. “She also said that once in her life, she would like to be able to see me play somewhere.”
East Germany’s absence from international tennis may account, to some degree, for Graf’s wide popularity there. Unlike the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries that routinely produce world-class players, East Germany has chosen not to compete at an elite level. None of the major professional tours this year included an East German player. Nor did one compete in the Seoul Olympics last year, when tennis returned as a medal sport for the first time in 64 years.
Graf recalled one player, an Eastern European champion of another generation, who retired in frustration, never having tested his skills against players of non-Warsaw pact nations.
“Playing 20 years in the same country,” Graf said, “he had no more motivation.”
“He was my boyfriend in 1971 or ’72,” she said. “He beat all the junior players in Czechoslovakia. He beat people who beat Bjorn Borg at that age. But he never had a chance to play on the outside. They were not allowed, period.”
Navratilova, who is seeded second this week, said she expected that to change, and not just because of the sudden political developmentsin East Germany. She predicted that because tennis has won a permanent place on the Olympic program, East Germans sports officials would begin to emphasize it and develop top players as they have in other sports.
“It’s that simple,” she said. “I think the world will now see a wave of East German tennis players.”
Navratilova described herself as “euphoric” over recent events in Eastern Europe, saying, “the winds of change are here.” They have blown less vigorously in other Eastern European countries but still with enough power to create hope.
Manuela Maleeva, a 21-year-old Bulgarian who is seeded eighth in the championships, said that the developments in East Germany were only slightly more exhilarating than changes in her own country, where Todor I. Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s president since 1954, resigned on Friday.
“That was unexpected,” Maleeva said, adding that she could not be sure how it would affect Bulgarian citizens.
“I think it will take quite a few years until things really start to change,” she said. “But I’m happy something is moving. When the same person is in power for 35 years, it felt like things would stay the same forever.”
Like Graf and Navratilova, she has watched in amazement as East and West Berliners celebrated at the Wall.
“They were all so happy,” she said. “it was unthinkable even a month ago that someone could walk on the Berlin Wall, and now they’re destroying it. It’s really something.”
Published in World Tennis Magazine, December 1989.
In October 1989, Chris Evert represented the United States for the last time in the Federation Cup. Here, she recounts the week.
Our first-round match is against Greece. I play Christine Papadaki, who I have never played or even seen before. The stress I feel before the match has nothing to do with the match itself, but with whether I will fit into the new tennis skirts the USTA made for us. They have red, white and blue sequined flags on the front. Anyway, Martina (Navratilova) and I overcame our jet lag (we arrived in Tokyo the night before after playing in a series of exhibitions) to win easily. Pam (Shriver) and Zina (Garrison) win the doubles.
We go to the NEC Sponsor Dinner later that night. NEC has been sponsoring the Fed Cup for eight years, and the buffet is great. Lots of giveaways too (television sets, pearls, walkmans, silks).
I wake up at 7 am to the sound of rain. We are scheduled to play Denmark, and we go indoors to hit just in case the weather clears up. Sure enough, by 11:30 we are on the court. The first round was played on court 4, a fast court, and this round we’re playing on court 1, which is very slow. It’s hard to figure out why a huge, impressive facility like this (it’s much bigger than Flushing Meadows) doesn’t have uniform-speed surfaces. No matter. I prefer the slower court and beat 16-year-old Karin Ptaszek easily 6-1 6-1. Martina, however, has trouble adjusting and Tine Scheuer Larsen takes advantage of some great passing shots to stretch Martina to 7-5 6-3. Zina and Martina win the doubles. Another 3-0 victory.
I’m still crossing my fingers, but so far team spirit is very high. Our coach, Marty Riessen, is good at dealing with four high-strung perfectionnists. I’m eally motivated – I just hope it lasts all week. The tough matches will begin Friday against Austria.
It’s a day off for the team, but I get early and go through a tough but fun two-on-one with Zina and Pam. Zina is hitting the ball so solidly and moving so well, it’s too bad that, at No. 5 in the world, she isn’t playing in a singles match somewhere. I think that reaching the US Open semis (by beating me!) and getting married (to Willard Jackson) have inspired Zina tremendously. She is coming into her own, which is great to see.
Pam, on the other hand, has come to a crossroads in her career and personal life. This is not an easy time for her: she is frustrated by injuries, her split with Martina in doubles, and her indecisiveness about whether or not to dedicate herself 100 percent to tennis. I really like Pam: she is bright and witty and multidimensional. I have no doubt she will emerge from this low period in her life stonger and wiser.
Here we are in the quarter-final match against Austria. I’m playing Judith Wiesner on center court. We both play well, and because she’s a baseliner we have some very long rallies, though I eventually pull it out. Martina beats Barbara Paulus and the doubles is called off because of rain. Pretty routine, I just heard that the Czechs beat West Germany. Martina is upset, she wanted a rematch with Steffi (Graf).
It rains all day, matches are cancelled.
Czechoslovakia, the match we’ve all been gearing up for. Helena Sukova and Jana Novotna are excellent singles players as well as No. 1 in the world in doubles. In other words, we don’t want to get into a 1-1 situation with them.
I’m ready and I’m focused. I pass Jana at the net and serve effectively to win 6-2 6-3. I think the Czechs were counting on winnning this match. In fact, I think a lot of players think they can beat me because I’ve had some loose, careless matches (for me) this year. But I’m determined not to give an inch.
My heart is in my mouth as Helena storms into the net at every possible moment against Martina and wins the first set 6-4. All of a sudden, our chances of winning this Federation Cup are in jeopardy. If Martina loses to Helena, it will be up to the doubles and the Czechs will be favored. But using the new-found determination that Billie Jean King has worked to rekindle, Martina blows Helena off the court in the second set 6-1, and then shows guts in winning the third, 6-4. In our minds this was the Cup final and we all share a sigh of relief.
One more to go. It has been three long years since we last won the Cup in Prague. We want it back.
They’re calling the final with Spain ‘thirtysomething’ versus the 17 year olds. Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez, both of whom are in the Top Ten, pose a real threat to me and Martina because of their slow-surface prowess. I feel a little bit apprehensive today because we have been psyching ourselves up more for the germans and Czechs than the Spaniards, because of my lack of knowledge about my opponent (Martinez) and because, more than likely, this will be my last tournament match. That could explain why I woke up at 5:30 this morning. I start to get uptight, but I finally convince myself not to worry, enjoy the competition, and work hard for one more match.
With Pam, Martina and Zina cheering me on from the sideline, I once again play intense, heads-up tennis to beat Conchita 6-3 6-2. Asked after the match why I am retiring when I’m playing so well, I start to realize why everyone on our team is in top form: we have camaraderie, we have Riessen as our coach on the court, and who wouldn’t improve practicing with Martina, Pam and Zina every day?
I think Martina is so relieved that I won my singles (and she is genuinely happy for me) that she forgets about her own game for a while. After losing the first set to Sanchez 0-6, Martina guts out the next two, 6-3 6-4. We have clinched the Cup! Pam and Zina then come out with 3-0 written in their determined eyes and makes us all proud by winning 7-5 6-3.
Andy and my parents watch the ceremony from the sideline. It is bittersweet: I am happy and proud; I am also sad. Later on in the locker room I get a migraine and shed the tears that have been bottled up for quite a while. I’m having a hard time dealing with the finality of it all and still find myself questioning my decision to retire. When I think of how well I played this week and the adrenaline flowing and the highs of winning, it’s hard to think of retiring. But then I force myself to remember the hard work, intense concentration, sore body, total commitment and disheartening losses. Retirement is all at once very calming.
Every year in September, 50 European countries take part in the European Heritage Days, a programme that offers opportunities to visit buildings, monuments and sites, many of which are not normally accessible to the public. For the first time, yesterday, the French Federation of tennis opened up the Roland Garros stadium and museum free to the public as part of Heritage Days, and of course, I was there.
— FFT (@FFTennis) September 18, 2014
Waiting to enter the museum, you could still see the Davis Cup semifinals poster and the French and Czech flags atop Court Philippe Chatrier.
The permanent exhibition showcases trophies, players memorabilia, a few videos as well as some infos about tennis history and the future Roland Garros stadium expansion.
You might be disappointed if you’ve visited the Wimbledon museum, Roland Garros museum is quite small, with less content and interactivity.
Below, the trophies presented each year to the winner of the men’s singles (Coupe des Mousquetaires) and women’s singles (Coupe Suzanne Lenglen):
Two months after her French Open victory over Martina Hingis and one month after her loss to Lindsay Davenport in the 1999 Wimbledon final, 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf announces her retirement.
‘Steffi has retired’. So, Steffi as well. It’s Friday 13 August 1999, six weeks after my Wimbledon farewell. Officially she played 994 professional matches; I played 932. She won twenty-two Grand Slams; I won six. If the friendship between Steffi and me turned into a book or a film, nobody would believe it. She was six and I was eight when we met for the first time.
I rode my bike to Leimen. She came with her mother. In those days I often had to play against girls, which felt like a kind of punishment, especially when then older boys – who later wouldn’t have stood a change against Steffi – used to say, ‘Look at the redhead, fighting it out with the little girl!’ It also got on my nerves when the coach, Boris Breskvar, ended the game just at the moment when I was set for victory. My mother conforted me: ‘He really doesn’t know how to handle children.’
Even as a child, Steffi was focused and introverted, and sometimes trained like a robot. Thanks to these supposedly typical German characteristics, it took quite a long time for her to become internationally popular, rather like Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, who always comes across as so brusque – as though all he’s missing is the spiked helmet. Steffi was too determined for some people’s liking – too correct, too cool, too ‘Made in Germany’. Her sign is Gemini. Perfection is in her nature. That’s how she did her job. On the other hand, she’s an extremely sensitive and compassionate person. This shows every now and then, but for a long time she didn’t really live out her emotions. The most important thing for her was tennis success, and that’s why she worked like a machine. It was much the same in my case, but from time to time other things mattered to me. She probably told herself: To hell with my feelings, what I want now is to win Wimbledon for the eight time.
The tax scandals concerning her father, the court case and his imprisonment took their toll on Steffi. I believe this also changed her way of dealing with her feelings. Steffi cried, and the people at home in front of the television cried with her. At last, something came from the heart, and the nation took her into its embrace.
We’ve been comrades in arms over the years. We didn’t have to explain to each other about the pressure we were both under. We’ve always been in the same boat, from Brühl and Leimen to Wimbledon and back.
As a woman she fascinated me. It wasn’t the infantile falling-in-love of a teenager that made me want to get to know Steffi better. It was a deep feeling of affection, an unexpressed understanding between like-minded people who shared the same fate. And, naturally, I was curious about her too: where did she get the power, the motivation, the inspiration that made her so successful? What had she got that I hadn’t? And we all know that success is sexy – not to mention Steffi’s legs! The Steffi I got to know was an exciting person, not in the least shallow, with a sombre side and a lively side. These weren’t visible in the tennis player. Early on, she moved to Florida, and took an appartment in the heart of New York’s SoHo. Black has always been her favorite colour, and she’s always had a weakness for expensive clothes. According to media reports, she had a relationship with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. These things don’t really fit the image of the Tennis Duchess (Graf means Duke) from Brühl, and Steffi was clever enough to keep this side of her life from the public. I didn’t succeed in this endeavour, but then maybe I didn’t want to.[…]
A little later I called Steffi. She was relaxed and happy. I congratulated her on her career and on making this decision at the right moment. We both knew what retiring felt like. I had no idea of her new love, Andre Agassi; she didn’t mention him at all. But I wasn’t surprised when I did learn of it. I knew that Agassi had had a crush on Steffi for some time, but first he had to get over the break-up with Brooke Shields, and Steffi had to get used tothe end of her career. Now they are tennis’ dream couple. Their son Jaden Gil is already seen by the British bookies as a potential Wimbledon winner. Maybe he’ll play Elias in the final one day.
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.”
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?
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.
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
Becker, like Edberg has been around for a long time but is still young. It was not until 1989 that each emerged as a player obviously capable of winning major championships on any surface: to be explicit, on the extremes of grass and clay. In 1989 either could have become the first serve-and-volley specialist to win the French title for more than 20 years. Neither will be content with what he has already achieved, impressive though that is. Their form during the next few years will depend partly on fitness (each has had problems, largely arising from the physical stress the ‘big’ game imposes) and partly on their hunger for success. Ambition is not a constant condition of the human spirit. The flow of even the strongest river is subject to variations of rainfall on the watershed.
So far, Becker’s record has been the more spectacular and has also had wider repercussions? Like Bjorn Borg in Sweden and Guillermo Vilas in Argentina, he became a national hero whose example fired his compatriots and caused an enomous expansion in tennis interest: among players, public, court and equipment manufacturers, sponsors, and a variety of entrepreneurs.
Becker’s triumphs, swiftly followed by those of Steffi Graf, were almost as exciting for television viewers in East Germany, where tennis has been an undeveloped minor sport. Given Becker, Graf and the game’s restoration to Olympic status in 1988, we may assume that what is at present East Germany will be a productive area of growth for tennis in the 1990s.
Becker’s influence has also been considerable – and benefical – in a more senitive area. Germany needed a heroic figure commanding world-wide respect and he took on that role as if born to it. His first Wimbledon championship came 40 years after the end of the Second World War and 45 years after a German bomb had fallen on to a corner of the competitors’ centre court seating area. There was a spice of irony in the fact that Becker’s tennis on that same court dominated television, radio, and newspapers and magazines in his homeland. For most of us the War was only an older genreation’s vague, receding memory, a faint shadow in the mind. But to the German-speaking peoples it remainded a slightly touchy subject. Young though he was, Becker was aware of that: and aware, too that the new Germany needed a paragon? He responded as if all his 17 years had been spent in the diplomatic service. On court, he was an immensely Teutonic sportsman: fair-haired and blue-eyed, big and strong and a fighter to the core. Off court, he was all charm and tact and low-keyed common sense, recognizing the ‘Blond Bomber’ and ‘Blitzkrieg’ headlines as no more than facile metaphors. In short, Becker made Wimbledon history and at the same time did an impressive public relations job for Germany.
Becker’s home is a little more than six miles from Graf’s. They have known each other since childhood, when they often used to hit together and, later, played in the same tournaments. By the age of 12 he was an unusually promising footballer but gave up that game in favor of tennis. At 15 he was West Germany’s junior champion and, in the first round of the boys singles at Wimbledon, was beaten by Edberg – the top seed, who was almost two years older. At 16 Becker left school to play full-time. His potential had been recognized by the national federation’s coach, Gunther Bosch.
Since their childhood at Brasov, which lies at the foot of the transylvanian Alps, Bosch had been associated with Ion Tiriac, an uncommonly smat man with an intimidating presence. Tiriac played Davis Cup tennis for Romania from 1959 to 1977, by which time he knew everybody an all the angles. As coach, then as manager and entrepreneur, he was – and remains – a cute businessman. Tiriac went to Leimen, guaranted Becker’s parents a fat income, and took charge of the lad’s career. Bosch became Becker’s personal coach.
Thus was Becker under new management, so to speak, from 1984 onwards. In April of that year he qualified for Luxembourg’s first grand prix tournament, which was additionally memorable for the fact that there was a dog show in progress and players shared a hotel with thoroughbreds – sometimes audibly restive during the night. On court, Becker’s ferocious hitting raised images of Ivan Lendl. He had two match points against Gene Mayer. Becker qualified for Wimbledon, too, but tore some ankle ligaments when hotly engaged with Bill Scanlon and was carried away on a stretcher. By the end of that year he was already 6ft 2in tall and weighed 12st 8lb (he has since put on about half an inch and half as stone). Just the build, in fact, to take on Wimbledon and the world. Tiriac and Bosch were doing what they could to improve his quickness and agility.
Just before the 1985 Wimbledon, Becker won the Stella Artois tournament at Queen’s Club, suggesting that he could be a future Wimbledon champion. The future was now. Becker beat Hank Pfister in Wimbledon’s first round and observed that he was looking forward to ‘not being a nobody’. Joakim Nystrom and Tim Mayotte in turn took him to five sets and almost beat him. Then Becker got lucky. He did not have to play any of the top three seeds, because Kevin Curen tore through John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in straight sets and Henri Leconte‘s fireworks display reduced Ivan Lendl to dazzled helplessness. By the time the final came round, Curren, who had already done enough to win most Wimbledons, did not have quite enough left. By contrast Becker was still strong, still dreaming the dreams of the young. He was having the time of his life and let us know about it: by joyously punching the air with his fists and giving his celebrated impression of a man cycling down a cobbled street without a bicycle. He was not only the first German champion, the youngest champion, and the first unseeded champion: he was also four months younger than the winner of the boys’ singles, Leonardo Lavalle. Moreover, Becker did it again in 1986, this time with more ease. His last two victims were Leconte and Lendl. Again, neither McEnroe nor Connors crossed his path.
Becker has often said that, as a tennis player, he was born at Wimbledon, that he feels at home there. The tournament changed his life and made him a celebrated millionaire. True, he had to shoulder a championship’s increased responsabilities to the game and did not always welcome the attention he attracted, the erosion of his privacy. ‘But it’s worth paying the price’, he admitted. It has often been suggested that Wimbledon is the easiest Grand Slam tournament for a man to win, because grass permits violently short rallies that make only limited demands on a player’s experience and tactical versatility. On the other hand a Wimbledon championship is the most coveted prize in the game and carries enormous prestige. It follows that, to some extent, Becker achieved too much too soon. He was like a man standing on the top of the Everest and realizing that he had yet to learn the craft of mountaineering.
Becker learned but it took him three years to win another Grand Slam title. Let us remember that, although twice Wimbledon champion, he was only 18 years old – still growing up in the midst of sudden fame and fortune.
In January of 1987, during the Australian championships, Becker’s natural need for more independance – moe time to go his own way, enjoy the company of his girlfriend, and find out what it was like to live an approximation of a normal life – led to a split with Bosch, who was unwilling to accept the part-time role Becker now demanded of him. But Tiriac was always there and Becker could easily pick him out, beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. And by the end of 1987 Franck Dick, a British athletics coach, was making Becker a better all-round athlete and Bob Brett, an Australian coach from the Harry Hopman school, was beginning to make Becker a better tennis player. gradually, Becker came to terms with manhood – and with the kind of tennis played on surfaces far more prevalent than grass. The Davis Cup competition helped, because Becker knew that he was playing for a team, a nation, and simply had to produce the goods – whatever the surface. And he did produce the goods.
The 1988 Davis Cup triumph was followed by a year in which it all came together. On the slow clay of Paris, Becker was narrowly frustrated but proved that he was ready to pass that most difficult of all tests for any player from the serve-and-volley school. And the Becker who regained the Wimbledon championship was a far more mature player than the the Becker of 1985 and 1986. He made a little more history too. In the first set of the final Edberg was taken by storm and scored only 10 points. It was the first 6-0 set in a men’s singles final for 40 years. Moreover, Steffi Graf won the women’s title the same day. Never before had Germands won both singles championships at Wimbledon – and Becker and Graf were to repeat the feat in the United States championships two months later, though Becker had saved two match points (one with the fortuitous intervention of a net cord) in a second round match with Derrick Rostagno.
It was the first time a German had won the US men’s title. Becker is unning out of firsts but will keep coming back for more: especially if his knees and ankles and the soles of his feet are spared an excess of the pounding they get on courts that are both hot and hard.
Becker is a commanding figure and an awfully powerful player. There is a hint of arrogance in the chin-up, icy glare he gives his opponents in the moments between rallies. Off the same toss, he can win any of three sevices: flat, kick, or slice. His forehand is equally fearsome. Becker flings his racket at the ball as if he never expects to see either again. Often, no volley is needed. A similar blazing speed can be evident when he puts top-spin on his backhand, which he usually hits with underspin. His volleys, whether punched or caressed, are like the cursory last spadefuls of soil on the graves of rallies. The pattern of his assault is varied, but the persistent strength of becker’s hitting keeps his opponents under terrible stress. On top of all that there is the bounding athleticism: the huge leaps for overheads, the spectacular falls as he hurls himself into wide volleys, and the quick ease (remarkable in such a big man) with which he moves in behind his service or an early-ball approach shot. And his unquenchable fighting spirit permeates the court like some electric curent.
At the age of 22 Becker began 1990 as the best player in the world.