Becker’s Second Serve

There’s a touch of philosophy with every facet of life.  More so, for any sportsmen. The day a sportsman hangs his boots is, sometimes, the best day.

The genius in Boris Becker knew that only too well. The only way he could have changed the equation was by not growing up.  Rather, he’d have grown younger.  Like what he was at age 16 or 18: a dynamite on the court.  This is, however, not a part of nature.

If you’ve to command nature, you must first obey its nurture. And, Becker, for one, always obeyed nature.  The outcome was obvious.  Not that he was not able to command his own mind.  Far from it.

To cull, but a brace of paradigms.

When most people thought that Becker had won his last major title at the Australian Open in 1991, he came back from the dumps, at Wimbledon 1995, and knocked the daylights out of Andre Agassi, who was in rip-roaring form, in the semi-finals. True, he lost the final to Pete Sampras: but, in his own heart, Becker sure felt he was back. Came the Australian Open 1996, Becker beat Michael Chang in the final.  All of a sudden, Becker looked he was young again.  Like how he was earlier. A kid. That was the magic of it all. Also, when he was supposed to be too old, at 29, he called it ‘quits.’  Next: he’s in command of his country’s Davis Cup squad. Germany could not have asked for a better person to call the shots, as it were… in the hot seat.

If only Becker was not injured, he could have given Richard Krajicek a run for his money at Wimbledon once.  Reason: Wimbledon was always special to Becker, the hallowed place where he ’empathised’ he was born.  Sort of.  Every year was no different.  He ran into Sampras in the semi-finals, as already cited, which was, for all practical purposes, the final. He could have won, if only Sampras had faltered. Yet, Becker had a smile on his face. He knew Sampras was at his best.  Like himself, at that point in time.

As he reflected: “The older you get, the more it all matters – about not just winning, but playing well, really well.” Yes, Becker, who’d then played his ‘last’ Grand Slam, did not play at the US Open due to the death of his close friend Alex-Meyer Wolden. Tennis missed his strong presence on court: a personality like no other.

But, Becker’s Becker.  He felt he had it in him: that tag of greatness.  Not for him the label of a dangerous opponent, a contender.  As Mike Lupica put it: “He still wanted trophies, the biggest trophies, the biggest trophies. He never stopped being Boris Becker. It’s a great thing for tennis. Becker wanted more great days. He believed it was not silly, when you arrive at a certain age, to keep reaching for the sky.” So, to say that he was all keyed up for his new assignment would be passé. He’d taken it up as a challenge – a challenge he’d convert by way of his own language into a success story.

This was also a thing of beauty, and a joy forever, about him. There’s something that was constantly adolescent in him. He loved the sound of the racquet hitting the ball, and vice versa: the feel of the racquet itself in his hand, where the child still dominated his adulthood psyche. Becker also knew that all of this was a blessing: that what he had achieved with the force of his talent and will was as thrilling, even resplendent.

The tennis court to Becker was his own research station and laboratory. He took his chances, outrageous chances, and often threw himself around the court with the gay abandon of a gladiator, or a blitzing linebacker. Inimitable stuff. Here’s a man who’s always trying to hit his second serve at about 160km/hour. A multi-faceted genius with a rare touch and as rare a flourish, Becker was his own radar, compass – a dream-come-true. What’s most refreshing, Becker was his own counsel. He thought of tennis as a game, not war.

When he arrived on the tennis horizon, in 1985, and became Wimbledon’s first unseeded men’s champion, and the youngest ever to hold aloft the most hallowed trophy in the game, Becker was full of boyish penchant: an exuberance that reflected in his game. He became a man too: a man with inner vitality, a formidable strength of character, a sheen of positive affirmation.  Soon, it became all too much.  Becker was at war – with himself.  He just couldn’t be a normal guy.

Picture this. Wimbledon finals, 1991. The match was anything but electrical for Becker. He did play hard, tight, loud and tough, in tune with management guru Mark McCormack’s famous exhortation. Yet, the whole encounter spawned a revelation to Becker’s inner psyche: of a tortured genius. Becker’s Davis Cup teammate, Michael Stitch, vanquished him in three sets, as he yelled and chewed bits out of his towel.  At the end of it all, Becker overcame his anguish and hugged the new champ. Yet, the message was not lost. He had behaved badly. Eccentricity is, after all, genius.

Came Barcelona, and Becker perished in the first round to a young Spanish player 200 or more places below him on the computer. Maybe, there was some reason: and, the critics, who were gunning at him, wanted one. With ad-opportunities too many and logos glistening, like the Formula One motor driver, all over his person and racquet, they gave their judgment: Becker’s totally out of sorts.  In the process, he did them a favour: a proviso to their theory. He dumped his racquet and kicked the balls away in disgust.  It was, in more ways than one, a paradox of varied hues, and many faces: his own.

To most analysts, Becker was always a teenager. His matters of the heart also compounded his problems, thanks to constant public scrutiny, not to speak of pressure. Like his girlfriend, later his wife – and, others that followed. This was anathema to the extreme right-wing populace in Germany. As Becker once said ruefully: “So much attention is on my skin and the colour of her skin.” It was sensitive, even pathos. And, for a truly emotional young man, in sharp contrast to his outside appearance, Becker found his voyage of [re]discovering himself, the real Boris, more than a tad dicey.

Ah, yes, Germany’s most celebrated hero was not exempt from some of the most commonplace problems of his profession, and celebrity status. If the question whether or not Becker should pay his taxes, by staying at home, was once a raging controversy, Germany and Germans felt ‘let down,’ because Becker made Monaco, US, his abode. That Becker ‘migrated’ much before his wife-to-be had become his girlfriend never silenced his detractors.

Whatever the argument, Becker, who comes from a family that has tennis in its genes, did not achieve tennis stardom, and immortality, on a platter. He worked his way to the top, the hard way. As Tiriac testifies, when he first saw Becker as a prospect, at age 15: “The guy couldn’t run, the guy couldn’t do anything. It was the worst life… But, he had this will power: the desire.” The rest, as the cliché goes, is history: a part of tennis’ own folklore. Or, maybe, Becker was tennis’ own apogee of Edison’s famous phrase: ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.’

For Becker, nothing was impossible.


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