Boris Becker, Wimbledon 1985

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.

By John Barrett, World Tennis 1985

Blame it on Borg. It was the phenomenal achievement in the late 1970s of the blond young Viking with the flowing mane and the rolling gait, as he plundered so many of the game’s greatest titles with seeming invincibility, that started the revolution. Between 1973 and 1980 the number of tennis players in Sweden doubled. Now, a decade after his first majour success – the capture of the French Open in 1974 as a 17-year-old – four of Bjorn’s fellow Swedes have ended 1984 ranked among the top 11 in the world – Mats Wilander (4), Anders Jarryd (6), Henrik Sundstrom (7) and Joakim Nystrom (11); a fifth, the 1983 World Junior Champion, Stefan Edberg, was at No 20.

For any nation (apart from the United States with its huge tennis community) that would have been a remarkable feat. For Sweden, with a total population of 8.5 million and only 125,000 registered tennis players, plus another estimated 275,000 who play occasionally, it is a miracle. And yet, hard as it is to believe after so much success, in this sports-mad country where 2.5 million of the energetic inhabitants participate regularly in some form of athletic activity, tennis is only the eighth most popular sport in terms of affiliated members.

As Borg grew into a national hero, it became the dream of every youngster who wielded a racket to emulate him. The municipalities throughout Sweden were beseiged by frustated parents who could not find anywhere for their children to play or anyone to teach them. Accordingly the local authorities were forced to embark upon an ambitious building programme, and with the northern climate allowing only a four-month outdoor season, that meant indoor courts. Some 200 of them are in Stockholm, the rest are dotted around the country – in twos and threes in small towns, in fours and sixes in larger towns – to provide ample opportunity for anyone with ambition. The proof that the system does indeed work can be found by looking at the home-towns of the five present leaders. They all come from different towns (not one is from Stockholm) and Nystrom hails from Skellefta, right up in the north of Sweden, where it would have been impossible to emerge without cheap indoor facilities.

This question of modest cost is another vital factor. The whole ethos surrounding Swedish sport is centred upon opportunity – the opportunity for any boy or girl with ability, regardless of his or her financial position, to be able to develop it and, most importantly to enjoy it. The average tennis club, which often belongs to the members, charges $10 or $20 per year as a membersip fee, which merely gives advance booking rights. Otherwise any member of the public can walk into any club and play on any free court by paying the modest hourly charges of $6-9. The structure perfectly fits the sophisticated nature of Swedish socialism. Through each of the country’s 23 Administrative Districts, the Swedish Sports Federation, founded in 1903, provides over the year many weekend courses, covering a wide range of subjects such as club administration, psychology and physiology and – in co-operation with the regional branches of the 57 Sports Associations – courses for trainers, umpires, officials and so on. Central Government makes an annual grant of $22-25 million to the Swedish Sports Federation; the county councils provide another $4-5 million for educational activities and the local authorities a further $70 million to help the 40,000 sports clubs with their pursuits.

It is all very-well integrated. Not only are there weekend courses for performers; the administrators and coaches are trained too. Herein lies the hidden strength of the Swedish system. In everry sport there are large numbers of amateurs helpers – organisers and coaches, who are often former high-level performers past the age of competiton – who give up their time to help the next generation. The Svenska Tennisforbundet, for example, have trained approximately 8,0000 amateur coaches and helpers during the past decade. Superimposed on this structure are the activities of the svenska Tennisforbundet’s main committees, each of which is mirrored at District level and again at Club level. Coaching for the most promosong of the young players is easily organised by these local organisations who nationally employ some 300 professional coaches, some full-time others part-time, based in selected clubs.

The Swedish Tennis Association’s share of the Government’s grant is about $300,000 which represents a quarter of the total income of $1.25 million. The balance comes from the Davis Cup (all the Swedish players sign contracts by which they agree to play for nothing in return for the help they received as juniors), from the Swedish Championships in Bastad, membership fees from affiliated clubs ($65,000 per year), from TV and radio fees, from equipment testing fees and, increasingly, from commercial sponsorship. Only about 6.25 per cent of the total income can be spared for junior training, which explains why the amateur coaches play such a vital role in the development chain.

The base of the pyramid is impressively wide, simply because the dedicated parents bing their offspring at an early age to the ‘Short Tennis’ sessions that are used to encourage the 5-8-year-olds to enjoy the experience of hitting a moving ball. These weekly meetings with their friends are not strictly coaching sessions but rather a way of detecting early whether or not a child has natural ball sense. In a strict but friendly atmosphere the youngsters learn, early and unconsciuosly, the need for discipline, and they really enjoy themselves because the sponge ball offers no danger of injury and the gentle nature of the bounce gives them a marvellous opportunity to sustain lengthy rallies. To watch a group of five or six-year-olds at one of these sessions is to know that they will grow to love tennis for the sheer joy it offers of performing a difficult skill well.

Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander:
Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander
Left: Henrik Sundstrom. Right: Anders Jarryd and the Simonsson brothers:
Sundstrom, Jarryd, Simonsson brothers

Leif Dahlgren, the Director of Education for the Swedish Association, does not underestimate the importance of parental attitudes:

“Without he wholehearted co-operation of the parents no youngster, however talented, will succeed. If Bjorn Borg’s parents had not been prepared to drive 20 miles a day in each direction to give Bjorn the early coaching with Percy Rosberg how could he have developped?”

At the top of the pyramid are the national squads in each of the age groups – 14 and under, 16 and under and 18 and under, which are the responsibility of one (or sometimes two) selected coaches. For the very best of the senior 18 and under players of 1981 lay the SIAB sponsored squad, the vehicle through which (thanks to the $125,000 the building company was prepared to invest each year) Wilander, Jarryd, Nystrom and Hans Simonsson emerged in senior tennis under the sympathetic control of Davis Cup captain, Jan-Anders Sjogren. This scheme was the forerunner of commercially sponsored national and local teams. Even the most optimistic supporters of the original scheme could hardly have envisaged the immediate success in 1982 when Wilander won the French Open at the age of 17 years, 9 months and 6 days, the youngest and the first unseeded player ever to win a Grand Slam Championship. Following Borg’s exploits this extraordinary achievement – along with the doubles success of Jarryd and Simonsson at the same Championships the following year – guaranted that the tennis boom in Sweden would accelerate.

The last, vital ingredient in this well-planned structure is competition. With regular weekend and annual competitions within the clubs and regions, it is inevitable that the strongest characters will emerge to earn selection for the national and international tournaments and team matches, plus the annual training camps, that are the recognised pathways to success. And because the competition is so widespread and begins around the age of 10 or 11, the ultimate champions in the various age groups can stand comparison with any in the world, as a glance at the honours board of the European Age Group Championships or the Orange Bowl Championships will readily prove. There you will find the same names – Borg, Wilander, Jarryd, Sundstrom, Nystrom and Edberg.

Perhaps the most important of all the domestic competitions is the Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) Cup, the tournament that inspired the present world-wide Sport Goofy Championships. Organised in three age groups for the boys – 11 and under, 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 – and two for the girls – 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 – this annual event, which began in 1970 with an entry of 1,137 has grown into arguably the largest tournament in the world with more than 13,000 entries per year. Small wonder that the winners of this gigantic event feel confident that they compete with anyone in the world. You will no longer be surprised to learn that among the past Kalle Anka champions are Borg, Wilander, Sundstrom, Stefan Simonsson and Edberg.

Something that worries the Swedes as much as it puzzles outsiders is the lack of comparable success among the Swedish girls. With all the same opportunities they have only two players in the top 100 – Catarina Lindqvist at 17 and Carina Karlsson at 95 – and little prospect of others joining them. It is an extraordinary contradiction that has no easy answer. Perhaps most telling is the lack of a folk hero in the Borg mould for them to look up to. If planning and effort can solve the problem, then it will soon be licked, for the new Volvo squad under the control of former French Open Champion and Swedish No.1, Sven Davidson, has all the brightest talent available. However, I have the feeling that girls as pretty and vivacious as the delightful Carina Karlsson, who made such an impression at Wimbledon last year, will find it hard to concentrate solely on her tennis. At least, I’m sure there are plenty of red-blooded young males who will make it hard for her!

Left: Joakim Nystrom. Right: Kent Karlsson:
Joakim Nystrom and Kent karlsson

Meanwhile the young Swedish males continue to set the pace at all age levels. Next on the senior horizon are the two Carlssons, Johan and Kent (no relation, by the way) who have been mopping up many of the 16 and 18 age-group titles between them, and seem destined to follow a path that is becoming all too familiar – and depressing if you were born outside Sweden! Like Bjorn himself and the entire present crop, these two display the same controlled courtesy on court that is so refreshing to spectators. When, in the fullness of time, we look back and try to analyse the contribution this remarkable group of young men have made to our sport, perhaps the most important element will be the restoration of a sense of pride and propriety on the court and a sense of comradeship and delight in the successes of their teammates off it. I can truly say it is always a delight to be in their company and takes me back to the cameraderie that used to exist among the great Australian players of the 1950s and 60s – men like Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, Neale Fraser, John Newcombe and Tony Roche … the list is endless. Come to think of it there is a strong parallel between the two eras with success breeding success. How appropriate that the young Swedes, like those Australians on so many occasions, have just won the Davis Cup.

How far the Swedish miracle has left to run only time will tell. At least they have their priorities right. Leif Dahlgren again:

In Sweden it is a widely accepted idea among trainers and leaders that young players should be trained early gradually to accept full responsibility for their own tennis. The sooner a player realises that whether he is going to become a top player or not depends on him and nobody else … the greater are his chances to achieve his goals… One might say that the most important job the trainer has to do is to make himself superfluous!

In fact what the Swedes have done is delighfully simple and holds lessons for the other tennis nations who strive mightily without producing results. By offering nationwide facilities cheaply, combined with coaching and competition, they have given their ambitious youngsters the opportunity to plumb the depths of their own personalities in a way that unlocks the hidden talent; then they have moulded that talent with imaginative leadership and not too much interference. What more could any young player in any country ask?