50th Birthday

Boris Becker: Game, set, tumble

122729912 becker diving dpa1800
Boris Becker is famous for his acrobatic dives – on court and in the business world. Source: DPA

Life for 50-year-old Boris Becker has been much like a grueling five-set tennis match. For most of his tennis career, the German tennis prodigy was at the top of his game, becoming the youngest player to win Wimbledon at the ripe age of 17. He had it all – six grand-slam titles, girls waiting hours for him outside hotels, luxury houses all over the world.

The trouble is that five-set games inevitably include setbacks, too, and are only overcome by players who have not only talent and endurance, but determination and inspiration. A bit of luck helps, too. Mr. Becker’s post-tennis career lacked all that. After amassing a reported $63 million in prize money at the height of his stellar career, the once carrot-topped German ace was declared bankrupt this summer by a British court at age 49.

London’s bankruptcy court is just several kilometers away from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, better known as Wimbledon, where Mr. Becker’s life was on a completely different trajectory three decades ago.

Born in Leimen, a small town in southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, Mr. Becker turned professional at the age of 16.  The unseeded teenager became an overnight star just one year later on July 7, 1985, when he defeated the South African Kevin Curren to win the men’s Wimbledon singles final. He became the youngest champion ever and the first German to win the prize. The following year, he beat the Czech Ivan Lendl to defend his title. He won it a third time in 1989 against the Swede Stefan Edberg.

There were also two Australian Opens, one US Open and a world number 1 ranking along the way. In 1990, he was named world athlete of the year for the fourth time. Together with Steffi Graf, who would go on to win the most Grand Slams in the Open Era of tennis, he inspired the “Boris Becker generation,” as interest in the sport of tennis swelled across his native Germany.

Boom Boom Boris was one of his many nicknames, this one given to him because of his ferocious serve, which he complemented with a high-pressure serve-volley game. He excelled on hard surfaces and grass, and fans roared whenever he performed his trademark acrobatic diving volley. Life for the German tennis wunderkind couldn’t get any better.

But over the course of the next decade, Boom Boom would gradually become better known as “Bonking Boris” for his steady stream of missteps off the court.

123565423 Becker and wife Lilly DPA
Better luck the second time? Boris Becker and his second wife, the Dutch model Lilly Kerssenberg. Source: DPA

He began blowing through money, women and business ventures, as his fame grew. He married the German-American actress and designer Barbara Feltus in 1993, with whom he had two children, but his third came after he fathered a love child with the Russian model Angela Ermakova during a fling in the broom closet at a Japanese restaurant in London.

That affair led to a lengthy and bitter divorce in 2001 with Ms. Feltus and cost him $25 million, his luxury condo in Miami and custody of their two sons. On top of that came another $1.2 million to buy his closet-baby’s mom a pad of her own in London. Although he managed to slip away with a two-year suspended sentence in 2002 for evading taxes of €1.7 million, he still had to pay up, in addition to a penalty fee of €500,000. Money was getting tight for the playboy tennis player, who had become a millionaire at 18.

Nor has Mr. Becker found much joy as an entrepreneur. Over the years, he has racked up a series of failed business ventures, including the Sportgate internet portal and the organic New Food business. The Boris Becker Business Tower in Dubai remained only a plan after his backers went bust.

And then came the debts. In 2012, he fell behind on payments due to contractors for work on his luxury villa in Majorca, Spain. For the past 18 months, Hans-Dieter Cleven has been in court seeking nearly €34 million from his former business partner.  But it was the €10.5 million being sought since 2015 by the private bankers Arbuthnot Latham & Co. that ultimately busted Boom Boom. The lawsuit they took to London’s bankruptcy court resulted in the tennis legend being declared bankrupt this summer.

“One has the impression of a man with his head in the sand,” said the registrar, who told reporters later that she had watched Mr. Becker play on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Boris Becker
So now what? Source: John Walton/PA Wire/dpa

Today Mr. Becker, ruddy-faced and grey-whiskered, with artificial hips and a steel brace in his ankle, lives in London. And when the day should come, he hopes to be buried as near to Wimbledon as possible. He considers that place a second home, and loves the quote above the door to Centre Court from the British Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

In this game of life, one could say that Mr. Becker has won the first two sets but lost the second two. Now the final set is all in his hands. Happy Birthday, Boris.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!