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.

Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, Wimbledon 1986

Extract from Boris Becker’s autobiography, The Player:

Before my first Wimbledon final I felt like a child in a toyshop; everything was possible and I had it all before me. Every round I survived had been a triumph. Since then everything had changed. The training was more concentrated and less relaxed, and felt more like a state of emergency than anything else. The endgame against Ivan Lendl would finally answer the questions everyone was asking. Was Becker 1985 a fluke, or is he really a mega talent? It felt like a matter of life or death. At this stage, I defined myself solely through tennis and any defeat meant the complete loss of my self-confidence. Only victory could rescue me.
In 1986 I was happy when it was over. It was the most pressure I’d ever been under. The wunderkind had to prove himself. Even I couldn’t be sure how good I really was.

Lendl had never won Wimbledon, and he’d almost lost the semi-final against my friend Bobo Zivojinovic. It was only because Bobo was undone by the umpire in the fifth set that Lendl won. I preferred to have Lendl as my opponent. I knew Bobo too well, because we often practiced together, and he could break my serve, but I couldn’t break his. Lendl was already sitting in the changing room, and we didn’t speak a word. Not his usual jokes, not even a comment, just silence. He was number one in the world. I was number six. He was twenty-six and wanted to win Wimbledon at last. I was eighteen, and had to win at least one more time. I was convinced I’d win. It sounds strange, but the previous night I’d dreamt of victory, just like the year before. Lendl, on the other hand, seemed frightened, almost transfixed.

I take the first two sets 6-4 6-3 – a stress-free hour. In the third he leads 4-1, a small crisis for me. Soon he’s leading 5-4, and I’m serving. I go down to love-40. My attitude is, OK, let him win the third set, but I’ll come back in the fourth. Then three second serves, three reflex return volleys… Somehow I turn it around and win the game. Five all. I realize he’s falling. Lendl serves – I break to 6-5. I’m serving for my second Wimbledon success. It’s 40-30. When the match ends I’m on the same side of the court as in 1985. Lendl is devastated. “Well played”, he says. I’m up in the clouds, immensely relieved.

I felt I’d been transformed from a boy to an adult. I’d opened the gate to the future and now I could have faith in myself. The victory in 1986 was the most important of my career. In 1985 I’d hardly known what I’d done; one year later I knew all too well. The reaction in Germany was overwhelming, but it left me strangely cold. After all, only a month before they’d written me off.

Boris Becker Wimbledon 1985

Excerpt of Boris Becker‘s autobiography The Player:

“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.”

McEnroe and Lendl, Roland Garros 84

Roland Garros has proven to be the most challenging tournament for some of the greatest players of the Open era, especially for those part of that now extinguished specie of serve and volley players. Let’s have have a look at the 5 best male players to never win Roland Garros:

John McEnroe

Grand Slam titles: 7
Best result at Roland Garros: final (1984)

82 wins, three defeats – that was the amazing record posted by John McEnroe in 1984 en route to one of the most incredible seasons ever in the Open era. And yet one of those three defeats – the final here at Roland Garros – has become legendary.

It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.
It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.

By making it to the final, McEnroe had racked up 42 consecutive victories, thrashing Jimmy Connors 7-5 6-1 6-2 in the semis. He was the huge favourite in this French Open final against Lendl, who was still seeking his first Grand Slam title at the age of 24. In the final McEnroe played beautifully to take the first two sets from Ivan Lendl in a little more than an hour. But McEnroe, distracted by courtside noises from a cameraman’s headset, lost his momentum. His temper took over as the Czech fought back to win in five sets and capture his first Grand Slam title.
McEnroe went on the win at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1984, but he would never get another opportunity to win Roland Garros.

Read what McEnroe said about this legendary final in his autobiography

Stefan Edberg

Grand Slam titles: 6
Best result at Roland Garros: final (1989)

Stefan Edberg‘s defeat in the 1989 final is perhaps even crueler than McEnroe’s defeat to Lendl in 1984, as he lost to a player who would never win a Grand Slam title again, Michael Chang.
With already three Grand Slams under his belt, Edberg was heavy favorite, despite the 17 yr old American’s incredible heroics en route to the final.The Swede led by two sets to one but could not finish it off and Chang became the youngest male player ever to win a Grand Slam title.

It was my great chance to win the French Open. Looking back, it was probably a match that I should have won with the chances that I had in the fourth set, but I should have been able to get out of that trouble. At the time, I thought I would get more chances to win the French Open, but I never did.

Read more on Chang’s victory in this portait by Rex Bellamy

Jimmy Connors

Grand Slam titles: 8
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985)

In 1974, Connors was among the players barred from Paris because they had agreed to play World Team Tennis, an American team competition which Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Federation, regarded as a “circus”. He had a stunning 99–4 record that year and won 15 tournaments, including all the Grand Slam singles titles except the French Open. His exclusion from the French Open may have prevented him from becoming the first man player since Rod Laver to win all four Major singles titles in a calendar year.

Although I’d missed the French Open for five years (it took four years for me to get rid of my anger and frustration after being banned in 1974), I always knew Roland Garros suited me. Not the surface or the balls they used, which slowed everything down too much for my game, but the atmosphere. It was hot, dirty, close and noisy… and I loved it. You had to be ready to grind it out. I’d buy a ticket for that any day.

Connors made the semifinals four times (1979, 1980, 1984, 1985) and the quarterfinals another four times, but one of his most memorable match at Roland Garros is probably his third round loss to Michael Chang in 1991. Read about it here.

Boris Becker

Grand Slam titles: 6
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1987, 1989, 1991)

Despite his 49 career titles, Boris Becker never won a clay court tournament, his best result being a defeat to Alberto Mancini in Monte Carlo’s final in 1989. That same year, Becker had his best chance at Roland Garros but lost (ironically) to a serve and volley player, Stefan Edberg:

I reached the semi-final three times, playing on a surface on which my main opponent was always myself. My game plan has always been to attack; that’s in my nature. On clay, however, the aim is to make fewer mistakes than your opponent. Paris is won by those who minimize risks and who hang on in there for four or more hours. Once I was very close to victory – against Edberg in 1989 – but it didn’t happen. I lost the fifth set 2-6

Pete Sampras

Grand Slam titles: 14
Best result at Roland Garros: semifinals (1996)

One month after the death of his longtime coach Tim Gullikson, Pete Sampras reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, his best result ever on the Parisian red clay. On the way to the semifinals he beat two time winners Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier.

When I hit the wall against Kafelnikov, and felt my dream – our dream – blow up in my face, it really did sink in. Tim was gone. Our dream was gone. It was gone for good.

Dominant on hard courts and grass, Sampras was just a pale copy of himself on clay. Winner of three clay titles overall (Kitzbuhel in 1992, Rome in 1994 and Atlanta in 1998), he just couldn’t adapt his game to this surface. After his 1996 semifinal, he seemed to give up any hope to win Roland Garros, but later admitted he should have done better.

I could have worked a little harder. I mean I worked hard but you always look back at your career and feel I should have done.

Read what Pete Sampras wrote in his autobiography about his 1996 run through the semifinals