Monday 24 October 2016

Boris Becker: 'I was embarrassed and very sad about how it all happened'

Boris Becker and wife Lilly
Boris Becker and wife Lilly

I expect Boris Becker, three-times Wimbledon champion, one-time tabloid target and now coach to world number one Novak Djokovic, to be a little distracted as I catch him at the French Open, during a break from watching his star pupil.

But Becker (47) is charming and charismatic, his German accent ever-strong, despite working with the BBC and living in Wimbledon for more than five years.

We're meeting to discuss his new book, Boris Becker's Wimbledon. Of course, back in 1985, at 17 years old, he became the youngest ever person to win the men's singles.

It's a record he still holds, and the victory changed his life, creating highs and lows as he became a celebrity off, as well as on, the court.

Becker now lives a stone's throw from the All England Club, and he's quite settled there. He likes Wimbledon, isn't bothered by locals in his everyday life, approached for autographs or selfies, or asked to do tennis coaching at his five-year-old son Amadeus' school.

"People are very respectful. The school hasn't asked me to do any tennis coaching, but I've heard that a ticket or two for the Wimbledon tournament this year would be very welcome!" he jokes.

He shares his home with his second wife, Dutch model Lilly Kerssenberg ("I call her my last wife. I'm not going to marry again," he says drolly), and their son Amadeus, but also lives only half an hour away from his 15-year-old daughter, Anna, born following the infamous 'broom cupboard' tryst at London restaurant Nobu in 1999, with Anna's Russian mother Angela Ermakova.

The scandal made tabloid fodder of Becker, as revelations of a paternity suit against him, DNA tests and his subsequent divorce from first wife Barbara hit the headlines.

"I became too much on the front pages, not enough on the back pages," he admits in his book.

"It hastened the end of my marriage to Barbara.

Boris Becker's daughter Anna

"That might have happened anyway as we were having our problems, but while the media had a field day with the story, I gained a daughter, a wonderful young woman I have loved from the day she was born and continue to love now.

"Of course, I was embarrassed and very sad about how it happened, and about the way it broke up my family. It left Anna's mother and me having to set about being parents without any relationship of our own to fall back on."

Understandably, he's protective of his daughter, and says she deserves her privacy.

"I'm now at a place with her and her mother that's very comfortable, peaceful and family-like. I don't see Anna as much as I'd like, but her mother and I are working on becoming a normal separated family, which hasn't been easy considering our starting point.

"We've had our battles. We come from different family backgrounds, we have different values and we have different views about education, but I respect very much the fact that she is my daughter's mother."

He says both he and Angela have matured.

"Obviously the whole situation was very emotional, and we both said things and did things that, in retrospect, we perhaps shouldn't have done. But all three of us are moving on in peace and harmony."

His behaviour during that period might lead some to wonder whether, at 17, success simply came too soon.

Having reached six finals in seven years at Wimbledon, by 1991 - when he lost to fellow German Michael Stich - he was yearning for some sort of private life beyond tennis. Two months later he met model Barbara Feltus, whom he married in 1993, and they had two sons together, Noah and Elias.

He announced his retirement after his last Wimbledon singles in 1999 and admits it took him a while to find himself afterwards.

"In sport, you're called old when you are 31. It affects your confidence and self-belief. It took me a couple of years to redefine myself.

"I didn't know what to write on my passport as a profession. Ex-tennis player?"

He now runs his own private equity company, dabbles in professional poker and gave up commentating for the BBC when he became head coach to Djokovic 18 months ago.

The Serbian's victory in last year's singles final was the most glorious moment for Becker since winning the title himself three decades ago.

"I think the end of the match was the most emotional I've been since I stopped playing.

"I had to pinch myself. I recall being in the locker room before the match and on one side, you had Novak, and me and on the other, you had Roger [Federer] and Stefan [Edberg, who played Becker in three successive Wimbledon finals and is now Federer's trainer]."

Off court, his relationship with his disparate family seems to have become much more civilised.

"We've all matured and got older. We've moved on. I'm still in close contact with my ex-wife. I'm in a good relationship with Angela. Without their help, I couldn't have moved on. In a way, we all call each other family now."

He says his ex-wife and Lilly are friends.


"I wouldn't say we go on holidays together but we go to Miami quite a lot, where Barbara lives. She invites us to her home and the brothers call themselves brothers, not half-brothers.

"It's a testament to the women. I'm fortunate, but it's a team effort."

Anna appeared on the catwalk earlier this year at Berlin Fashion Week.

"It's every girl's dream. She looked beautiful. I was proud of her," Becker reflects.

He would love to get all four children together, which hasn't yet happened.

"I think eventually the kids would want to meet, but I'm not going to instigate it. Hopefully it will be a natural, organic thing that will happen."

He would also love to have more children.

"My wife wants another two at least, but I say let's start with one more, so, God willing, she'll be pregnant this year."

Being Djokovic's coach means he's back on the road for 25 weeks of the year, but he says he and Lilly are never apart for more than 10 days.

Becker will of course be with Djokovic every step of the way at Wimbledon this summer, and predicts it could be a Murray/Djokovic final.

"Having said that, I wouldn't rule Roger Federer out yet. But I think Murray and Djokovic are the ones to beat."

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