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.