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TAUGHT HIM A LESSON : West German Idol Boris Becker Had to Learn a Lot About Life in 1987

February 29, 1988|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

Life in America, land of instant celebrity and disposable heroes, is completely foreign to Boris Becker.

Here, the Wally Joyners are quickly replaced in the public's consciousness by the Mark McGwires. The John Elways are eclipsed by a Doug Williams in a single quarter. There's even talk, previously unthinkable, that Mario Lemieux is closing in on Wayne Gretzky.

Boris, off the cover of the sports pages in West Germany, back with the Volkswagen tire ads? Never.

Becker discovered years ago--well, it seems like years--that he was different, and always would be different in West Germany. Uebermensch . A superman in his country. No matter what Steffi Graf, the world's No. 1 women's player does, Boris is still Boris.

And if you don't believe it, Becker invites you to take a plane flight with him.

"I think you have to see how many people come to see her in an airport and how it is with me," said Becker, matter-of-factly.

This is one reason why 1987 was so difficult for Becker--and the rest of West Germany--to swallow.

In 1987, a year in which Becker was expected to challenge Ivan Lendl for No. 1 and win his third straight Wimbledon title, the West German lost several places in the rankings, lost his coach, lost his health for a time, and, lost another huge chunk of innocence.

"I've learned as much as I've ever learned the last half year . . . about life," Becker said. "Yes, everything before was only successes. It was only sunshine until then (Wimbledon). It was a year of so many things."

Really, his year started with a false start. If you break Becker's 1987 season into three parts the first could be titled:

The Breakdown Down Under and The Breakup.

His fourth-round loss to Wally Masur in the Australian Open also included a drawn-out tantrum, consisting of Becker hitting balls toward the umpire's chair and out of the stadium, breaking three rackets and spitting water in the umpire's direction.

Shortly thereafter, Becker's longtime coach, Gunther Bosch, announced his departure, saying he was upset with his protege's behavior and attitude concerning training. The loss of Bosch and its effect was manifested in a couple of ways. First, some sting has come off Becker's serve, his trademark stroke. All through 1987, he struggled with the shot, searching for his lost timing.

Second, Becker started to feel the pressure as everyone questioned the wisdom of his being without a coach or whether his new girlfriend, Benedict Courtin, was a distraction.

And, certainly Bosch wasn't shy about discussing Becker's shortcomings, post-breakup, after each loss. Becker heard and read those words, too. At the U.S. Open, he spoke about the hurt and made it clear there were no plans for a reunion with Bosch in 1988.

Last month, when Becker was in Los Angeles to promote the Newsweek Champions Cup at Indian Wells, Calif., which starts today, he shed new light on the matter of Bosch.

"Should I be honest?" Becker asked. "I was thinking, really, a half year before Melbourne about splitting with him. Because he couldn't give me what I needed. He had not enough knowledge for that high level of playing. He never did it. I was the first guy, that's why everybody got it wrong. Everybody thought he was the greatest coach in history. (Ion) Tiriac, all the time, was the coach.

"He (Bosch) was a good, psychological man. He could make you feel good. That's very important in tennis, but it's not enough, not enough to become the best. He was good in that way, to motivate me, to make me feel good, but he had nothing to do with the tennis.

"Everybody got it wrong. But it's all right with me. I don't want to hurt the man. He did good things for me. . . . He hurt me, but yet he hurt himself more than he did me. So, that was the whole deal."

In the immediate post-Bosch period, Becker was able to quiet some of the criticism as he won the Indian Wells event--defeating Stefan Edberg in the final--without losing a set. After producing mixed results through the winter and spring, it looked as though Becker was on a smooth course en route to a third straight Wimbledon title. He reached the semifinals of the French Open on clay, and staved off a strong challenge from Jimmy Connors to win at Queen's, a pre-Wimbledon tournament.

There was little indication that little-known Peter Doohan would ambush Becker in the second round at Wimbledon, setting a dissonant tone for the rest of 1987.

Part II, The Ambush: Boris Meets Peter.

"Afterward, you always say, 'I could do that, or maybe I should have done that,' " Becker said. "And he didn't even get nervous. Normally, you make a few double faults. I had it in my mind that, hopefully, he was going to get nervous sooner or later. But no way.

"But I take it. I took the first two Wimbledons. I have to take this one, too."

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