A few weeks back the bankrupt tennis legend Boris Becker was in court facing trial for hiding from his creditors, among other high-value acquisitions, the Wimbledon Trophy he won as a 17 year old. It was a heart-breaking bit of Becker update for a world that treats even the Lemon & Spoon race medals from school days as family heirlooms. You could feel his pain, you could understand his attachment for the memories of his glorious past.
Yet there was a sense of inevitability when the former Wimbledon champion was sentenced to two and a half years on Friday for avoiding repaying a £3m loan on his luxury estate in Mallorca, Spain.
Those who lived the Summer of ’85 would never want the strawberry blonde German boy to part with the golden trophy he won by risking his limb on those sacred, but badly battered, English lawns. That day he played a brand of power tennis that made the stalwarts of those times John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors look like former stars from the wooden-racket era.
Rarely at a sports arena was the restlessness of youth channeled better or its audacity, held so much promise. At 54, Becker hasn’t quite aged gracefully. His puffed strained face is a proof of his edgy life, his dangerous liaisons, the financial misadventures and the costly closet dalliance.
Becker, like anyone else, needs to face the consequences of his actions but purely for that magical night you feel the law should avoid the course that slithers past his trophy cabinet.
Around the time Becker was appearing in court to avoid jail time last month, another Wimbledon champion also spread shock and distress in the tennis world. Ash Barty, just 25, announced that she didn’t have it in her anymore and was retiring.
There’s a thin thread that ties Becker and Barty. Both faced the blinding spotlight when they weren’t exactly ready. But history shows the two gifted tennis players, with chalk and cheese-like contrasting personalities and perspective, reacted to the situation differently.
In her final goodbye on instagram, Barty mentioned how the Wimbledon title last year changed her as a person and an athlete. “It was my one true dream that I wanted in tennis, that really changed my perspective and I just had that gut feeling (about retirement) after Wimbledon and had spoken to my team quite a lot about it.”
If the 2021 Grand Slam on grass triggered a sense of fulfilment in the player from Queensland, the Australian Open title, a couple of months back, quenched her thirst for good. For the multi-talented Barty – a few years back she made it to Big Bash after a few serious batting sessions – it was time to look for new challenges.
So did Barty, unlike Becker, lack the mental strength to retain the Wimbledon crown and play competitive tennis for close to two decades? Or was Barty wanting more from her life, not keen to live out of a suitcase or follow the hotel-to-stadium routine all through her youth.
Walking down the Becker and Barty career paths gives an idea about the changing sporting ecosystem and the priorities of stars. It also answers a few important questions.
Becker’s 85 Wimbledon was a far-more significant milestone in the history of the game than Barty’s 2021 title on grass. The overgrown German boy in tight white shorts, had trotted around the Wimbledon Centre Court like he was in his living room. He would dive on grass to connect volleys, rolling over swiftly to be back on feet and end the rally. Becker was somebody the tennis world had never seen.
He was the first from the country to win Wimbledon. “German engineering at its finest,” was how his coach had famously described him. Over 50,000 Germans had reached Leimen, Becker’s home town of 10,000, to give him a grand welcome.
But Becker had by his side his coach Ion Tiriac, an intimidating Romanian with a biker’s moustache and known as “Brasov Bulldozer” on the circuit. Years later, Becker would recall the talk he had with him after the Champions ball, British Morning TV appearances and the call from the German Chancellor. The young Becker would listen and imbibe Tiriac’s wisdom. The coach listed the sequence that would follow his success and how he should be ready to face the pitfalls of fame.
It helped that Becker was wired differently. He had a deeply philosophical understanding of fame. A few years back, he spoke about how everybody wants to be famous without understanding the reason for their quest. “I started playing tennis because I love the game, I loved the competition. The sideshow that happens when you win a big title is more important for other people than you,” he said.
He would say that both the media and the fans – the ones who define fame – were not important for him. The newspapers, he said, could never imagine the effort he had put to win, plus he could give his best even in front of an empty centre court since he loved the game and the competition.
“At 18, I was multiple Grand Slam champion, had money in the bank, was successful, was famous, so why would I go back at 19, 20, 21, 25 and 28? Because I love the sport. If it was just for fame, money and fortune I wouldn’t play at 25,” he would say.
So when Barty quit the game at 25 does it mean that she loved the game less? No, with time, the sensibilities of sports too change.
Becker too agrees. “When I played, you very much live in the moment, you can’t imagine that now. There was no internet, no cell phone. We just had The Times, The Telegraph and The Mail those days. It was a different kind of hype. There were no long press conferences, no huge headlines.”
The world has changed. In 2022, quitting early was an act of professing love for one’s beloved sport. When intrusive attention to personal life, endless corporate obligations, agents obsessed with numbers get too overpowering, what was once a passion can turn into a chore.
Sport can turn into a toxic cesspit at the first sign of success, with social media rendering every epilogue to a title into a claustrophobic anarchic free-for-all of opinions. Young athletes subjected to this bombardment, will always struggle under the harsh and extreme spotlight, which can overwhelm the simple joys of thwacking a ball with a racquet, the simplicity of which Becker could fall back on then.
Barty, and the young of today, are wiser about the flipside of early fame and have learnt to prioritise mental health. Maybe, Becker had a longer and brighter playing career but Barty had a better retirement plan.