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Broken Promise
S.L. Price
May 28, 2001
He was the philosopher king of tennis, a gutsy champion with a social conscience. But after a sex scandal and a messy divorce, can Boris Becker put the pieces back together?
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May 28, 2001

Broken Promise

He was the philosopher king of tennis, a gutsy champion with a social conscience. But after a sex scandal and a messy divorce, can Boris Becker put the pieces back together?

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The Ferry swings into Miami's Government Cut, aiming for the island. In a van parked on board, Boris Becker sits up in the passenger seat, the front row for an almost unnerving blast of postcard beauty: the buttery dying sunlight, the churning surf. He sees none of it. He has lived through enough South Beach springs to take such a vista for granted, and besides, he's distracted. First, there's that young woman in the back of the van, and yes, Becker is sure he knows why she is there.

Haven't months of headlines pronounced him Germany's most famous satyr? Isn't everyone trying to soften him up? Becker takes great pride in his ability to read all the angles, and he figures it's no mistake that every time he goes on a photo session lately, the photographer shows up with an attractive assistant/makeup artist/gofer. A week ago, at a shoot in Europe, the photographer brought a female assistant and two women with no apparent task. Next time, they joked, we'll bring 10 girls to help you relax. "As if that's all I'm interested in," Becker says.

Still, the makeup artist in the back of tire van—who was brought along only to apply makeup—is gorgeous, and the 15-minute ride from Miami Beach to Fisher Island goes slowly. Becker twists around to give the young woman his full attention. For a time, he treats her every word as if it were dipped in gold. His heart isn't quite in it, though. Becker trusts no one these days, and the ferry is his most immediate reminder why.

He has been making this trip often lately. His sons, seven-year-old Noah and one-year-old Elias, live in a luxury apartment on Fisher Island with his ex-wife, Barbara, and sometimes Becker spends the night there and wakes up like a ghost in what was, only a few months ago, his home. Passing through those rooms, he sees the mundane things—chairs, forks, bedsheets—that he once could lay a hand on and say, Mine. He sees Noah, growing fast. "This is the one loss I have," Becker says. "The fact that I cannot go in the bedroom at night and sneak up on him kills me sometimes. Just to be with him, hold him, smell him...."

Instead, on this blustery March afternoon, Becker drifts. At 33, the greatest male champion in German history spends most of his time in the air or on the road, jetting from Munich to Majorca to Miami, adding to his $100 million fortune, looking to seal the deal that ignites the second act of his life. He looks drawn, thinner than he used to be, and his famous self-confidence comes and goes.

Talk in the van drifts to dating. Becker turns back in his seat. Someone jokes that a man is better off getting a prostitute. As the ferry chugs alongside Fisher Island, Becker stares at the thick green lawns, the impeccable quiet hovering ever closer. He nods. "It's more honest," he says. "Because at the end of the day, you always pay."

He waves a weary hand, describing in that feeble arc all he knows and doesn't know about love and women and his own stupidity. "You see?" Becker says, pointing to the shore. "That's my old apartment."

Once, Boris Becker was the most important man in tennis. Not just because of his popularity, which reached astounding levels, in and out of Germany, before he retired in 1999. And not just because of his success, though he made huge amounts of money and won plenty of tournaments. In fact, it's easy to discount Becker's stature as one of the game's historic figures: His six Grand Slam singles titles aren't half of Pete Sampras's total. Still, at a time when pro tennis seems to be swimming in an especially shallow pool, it's clear that the sport misses Becker for reasons beyond gate appeal. Sex has become tennis's driving force: The women sell cheesecake; the men rally under the banner of NEW BALLS PLEASE. Looks trump talent. The tour has become the world's richest high school.

Becker flew above all that. He never acted his age. In 1984 he arrived at his first Wimbledon at age 16 and, after tearing ankle ligaments in his third-round match against Bill Scanlon, insisted on hobbling over to shake his opponent's hand before being carried off on a stretcher. The next year he became the youngest man to win at the All England Club, hurling his massive body at the ball, shouldering past veteran Kevin Curren in the final as if Curren had no right to step on the same grass. A few weeks later, as his fame mushroomed and 200,000 German Kinder flocked to play tennis, the new teen idol told TIME magazine that the blind worship he saw in his fans' eyes had him worried. For the first time, Becker said, he understood how Hitler had happened.

This, of course, was a dangerous thing for an athlete to say. Becker risked alienating his public just as it was starting to love him, but he didn't care; gossip and play-by-play bored him. He wanted to engage the world beyond tennis, beyond the era's preoccupation with McEnrovian bile, and his earnestness elevated the conversation. "Those years—'85, '86, '87—Becker was the most natural, crystal-clear youngster I ever saw," says Ion Tiriac, Becker's former manager. "He didn't know how to lie, didn't need to lie, didn't need to find excuses or hype, or cry when he was losing. That's what made human beings around the world identify with him."

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