hree decades ago, Boris Becker was wooing the world with his flamboyant tennis, which involved flinging himself dangerously around the court, diving headlong for volleys and delivering killer serves that earned him the nickname “Boom Boom”.
But the erstwhile darling of Wimbledon, who, as an unseeded 17-year-old in 1985 became its youngest-ever champion, has suffered a spectacular fall from grace after being declared bankrupt.
The 49-year-old’s financial demise has been followed with vicarious discomfort in his native Germany by those who once marvelled at his stellar achievements.
“It’s like the invalidation of a fairytale,” said Franz Josef Wagner, a veteran provocative columnist with the tabloid Bild. “It is painful to write about … someone who was once kissed by all the gods.”
Wagner recalled the days when “Bum-Bum”, as he was known as at home, captured the imagination of his nation to the extent that when he played at Wimbledon, “the autobahns were as empty as Christmas time”. An estimated 20 million West Germans were glued to their television screens to watch their most famous son in his showdown with Kevin Curren on 7 July 1985.
Wagner recalled meeting the 17-year-old, who at the time of his win had not even “begun to shave … or kissed a girl, got a driving licence or even finished school”.
In a recent column, he said he was pained to write that Becker was almost unrecognisable from his former self, living way beyond his means, his youthful face “puffed up”, a man “destroyed by his celebrity”.
Just two weeks ago, the tennis star was declared bankrupt by London judge Christine Derrett, after proceedings brought against him by the private bank Arbuthnot Latham. Derrett said she had the impression “of a man with his head in the sand”.
Then last week, a former Swiss business partner demanded the repayment of €36.5m from him. A law firm acting for Hans-Dieter Cleven said, in the light of the court’s decision, the entrepreneur “felt obliged to enforce his demands” to claw back money he once lent Becker for a joint business venture.
Becker’s lawyer, Christian Oliver-Moser, accused Cleven in the German media of “lobbying in public” for what he said was an “unfounded claim”.
Becker, who is currently working as a television commentator during the Wimbledon championships for the BBC and other outlets, has denied the bankruptcy claims, telling the German press he can meet all his obligations. In an interview last week with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he said it was in his nature to fight. “One aspect of myself that I value, is that I’m not cynical or sarcastic by nature. I am a life-affirming person and no one can take that away from me,” he said.
On Wednesday, he presented the state of his finances to a London bankruptcy administrator in a private meeting, where he was reportedly given a living allowance and ordered to register any income.To add to the humiliation, this week his blue Maserati – on loan to him in a sponsorship deal – was taken away from him after he failed to pay the fines on a multitude of parking tickets he received in London.
An investigation by the news magazine Stern has revealed that the Forbes-listed billionaire Londoner John Caudwell, who made his fortune in the 1990s with his company Phones 4u, lent Becker about €2m in 2014 to fend off the forcible sale of his Mallorcan finca over a large number of unpaid maintenance bills.
Stern called the finca row just one example of Becker’s inability to cope with the millions he had earned. But it said it was hardly surprising for someone who lived disconnected from reality since the age of 17.Caudwell transferred the debt to Arbuthnot Latham in April 2015. By June 2016, the debt had risen to more than €4m, which Becker allegedly refused to pay.
This is the man who once had to go to his coach for pocket money, who, when he met the press after his Wimbledon victory, had no idea that he had won £130,000. “That’s a lot, isn’t it?” he asked them.
Becker, who won six grand slams in the 1980s and 90s, including three Wimbledon, two Australian Open and one US Open titles, has long been creating headlines beyond the tennis court.
His marriage to his first wife, Barbara, ended in an acrimonious divorce that cost him an estimated €15m. There was a three-minute tryst in the broom cupboard of a London restaurant during which his daughter Anna Ermakova – who at first he denied was his – was conceived. In 2002 he received a two-year suspended prison sentence from a Munich court for tax evasion. In between there was a string of relationships with glamorous women that he actively publicised.
Christian Schommers, who co-wrote Becker’s 2013 biography Life Is Not a Game, said his excessive lifestyle had been the one thread of continuity in his life.With increasing eye-rolling, Germans have followed his various business ventures, most of which have failed, including Sportgate, New Food AG, Boris Becker car dealerships and, one of the latest, Boris Becker TV, as well as his career as a consummate poker player.
“He still lives at the same standard he enjoyed as an active tennis professional when the millions were flowing,” Schommers said. “From expensive rents or holidays to Ibiza – even though he has a finca on Mallorca – through to expensive meals, cigars, whisky ... on top of that he is extremely generous. I’ve never been to a dinner where several people were present which he hasn’t paid for.”
Schlommers believes Becker should never have separated from his manager of 10 years, the mustachioed Romanian Ion Ţiriac, known as the “Brașov Bulldozer”, who acted like a father figure and would, he believes, have kept him on the straight and narrow. “That was his biggest mistake in my opinion … Ion Ţiriac was the best adviser he ever had,” he said.
Now married to Lilly Kerssenberg, a Dutch model with whom he has a seven-year-old son, Becker lives in the London borough of Wimbledon, within walking distance of the championship grounds. Perhaps this is an expression of his need to be close to the lawns where he first experienced the exhilaration of winning a grand slam.
He was able to relive some of that Centre Court glory when he coached Novak Djokovic for three years, helping him to six grand slam victories before they split amicably last year. Last week, Djokovic expressed support for his friend, saying he had told Becker in a phone call: “I’m always there for him. He can count on me.”
It is closely observed in Germany that he is more warmly regarded in Britain than at home. In Germany, he has been viewed with increasing scorn over the years as a bumbling embarrassment, an impression only reinforced by his regular fee-paying appearances on celebrity TV shows, one in which a helmet and fly swats were taped to his head for several hours. The humiliation on his face was plain to see. As he himself told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in Germany he “always had the feeling I was misunderstood”.
Schommers said he is sceptical whether the former sportsman will be able to recover from his current ordeal. “Boris ... has already overcome many crises, whether his tax affairs, his divorce or his out-of-wedlock child, but the crisis that he now faces is the biggest of his life. It cannot be dealt with by winning match point, it will be extremely difficult.”In London, by contrast, he is viewed with respect, and has done much with his witty tennis commentaries to quash the cliche that Germans can’t tell a joke. As Stern notes: “He is the famous German who feels more comfortable with them than in his homeland, and explains the quirks of tennis with humour.”
Meanwhile, Becker has said himself there are plans afoot for a Boris Becker tennis school in China.