In 2007, in the nondescript surroundings of a central London hotel, a sizable poker tournament was about to start. Among the 140 players sitting round the tables waiting for the first deal was Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion, who was being sponsored by the organisers, Pokerstars.
With characteristic confidence, Becker insisted to a group of journalists that he was not just invited to make up the numbers. He told the assembled company he was there to win – as he always did when he stepped out on a tennis court back in the 80s and 90s.
He had, Becker added, become rather adept at the game while on the circuit, regularly cleaning up in locker-room hands. As for the suggestion by one reporter that- given the emotional manner in which he played tennis – Becker was not someone you imagined with a poker face, he was dismissive.
I know how to control my emotions, he said. I actually have a very good poker face.
It turned out it wasn’t that good. He lost in the first round. As he did in most of the professional poker tournaments in which he competed over the next 10 years. Despite his insistent bravado, the highest position Becker ever registered was 40th. He may have fancied himself as a hotshot, but the hard truth was, at poker, he was an also-ran.
And that, according to those who know him best, is typical of Becker.
I can describe Boris very quickly, his former coach Nick Bollettieri once said. He knew a lot. What he didn’t know, he thought he knew, and he would intimidate people into thinking that he knew it.
Being not quite as clever as he thinks himself to be is part of the reason Becker, 54, found himself on Saturday (Australian time) heading to prison to begin a two-and-a-half year sentence, after being found guilty on April 8 at Southwark Crown Court of four charges under the Insolvency Act.
In June 2017, Becker had declared himself bankrupt over a £3. 5 million (A$6. 2 million) unpaid loan to buy a villa in Mallorca from Arbuthnot Latham, the private bank. But the court decided that, rather than genuinely attempting to repay his debt, Becker had deliberately hidden millions of pounds of assets before declaring bankruptcy.
These included his tennis trophies, cash in bank accounts of which he claimed to be unaware, plus a couple of properties he did not realise he owned. The deceit was transparent. And so the finest tennis player of his generation is heading for a spell inside.
How had it come to this? How had the man who accrued more than £38 million in prize money and sponsorship on the tennis tour, then enjoyed a lucrative second career as television pundit and hugely successful coach, ended up in such a financial mess? What on earth possessed him to think he could get away with it?
The answer was there for anyone who has watched Becker play poker. He believed he could bluff his way through it. The trouble is, when it comes to bluffing, Boris Becker is no champion. As his ex-wife Barbara’s lawyer Samuel Burstyn put it during their protracted divorce case: If Boris had more than just charm and balls, he’d really be dangerous.
The one thing Becker really was unequivocally good at, however, was tennis.
From the moment he threw himself across the Centre Court turf in 1985, winning the Wimbledon title as a ludicrously prodigious, unseeded 17-year-old, he seared himself on the sporting conscience. For the next 15 years, he hit the ball harder, with more purpose and considerably more venom than anyone else on the professional circuit. Boom Boom Becker, Baron Von Slam and Der Bomber he was dubbed for the ferocity of his play, as he won six grand slam titles.
Three times he triumphed on Wimbledon’s lawns. And how the crowd loved him when he did so. Sure, he could be petulant, swearing at umpires, flinging his racket to the turf when he lost a point. But his energy, charisma, and sense of humour we found irresistible.
Fluent in English, he was dubbed Britain’s favourite German, though as he once joked about the nickname, he was top of a short list.
Long after he retired, Becker’s enduring popularity with British crowds was obvious in the Centre Court stands, where he could be seen regularly charming someone he had never met, before inviting her back to his place, no doubt to continue a discussion on umpire’s line calls.
Indeed, from the early days, Becker seemed to enjoy being in Britain rather more than he did his homeland. After he married the black model and actress Barbara Feltus in 1993, he was horribly abused. Becker, then Germany’s most famous man, adored for his Germanic blond looks, was reckoned by a loud-mouthed minority of his countrymen to have betrayed his roots. People shouted at him during tournaments that Barbara was a black witch. On the day of his marriage, one German tabloid headline wailed: Why, Boris? Why Not One Of Us?
The pair left Germany for a life in Monaco, Florida and London.
Not that Becker was entirely faithful to Feltus once they upped sticks. Their marriage was already floundering by the evening in July 1999 that he announced his retirement from the game after losing to Pat Rafter at Wimbledon. While Feltus waited for him back home, Becker headed off for a boozy night on the town.
Nine months later, the hangover hit. A Russian model called Angela Ermakova claimed Becker had impregnated her during a brief assignation in – according to legend – a broom cupboard in Nobu, the restaurant in Knightsbridge.
The result was a baby girl, Anna. After initially trying to lie his way out of it, claiming he had never met Ermakova and the girl could not be his, Becker was obliged, following a positive paternity test, to provide more than £2 million to finance the upbringing of his daughter.
The Nobu fling was not an isolated incident. Although Feltus had signed a £1. 92 million prenup agreement, she cited many a misdemeanour to press for a resulting £11 million divorce settlement, which included the couple’s £2. 5 million Florida estate. Becker would often stay there after the divorce to visit his children, still on friendly terms with his ex.
Nobody falls out with Boris for long, says one of his many old friends. You can’t help forgiving him.
But while his mates might have stuck by him, the money was beginning to leach away. And there was nobody around him to corral his spendthrift habits.
In 1997, just as his marriage had started to crumble, Axel Meyer-Wolden, Becker’s longtime business manager, died of cancer. Two years later his father, Karl-Heinz, a stabilising force throughout Becker’s career, also died.
Karl-Heinz had encouraged the young Boris to work relentlessly through his teens to make it as a pro. Determined and driven, Becker had never indulged in standard youthful experimentation nor made the mistakes young men are prone to do. Like Tiger Woods did when he lost his father, without his anchor, Becker cut loose.
Now retired from playing, and no longer required to maintain competitive discipline, he pursued self-indulgence, thriving on the apparent chaos of a reckless emotional life. His second marriage, with Lilly Kerssenberg, the mother of his son Amadeus, collapsed amid accusations of infidelity. As one of his many friends puts it: Boris doesn’t like to play by the rules.
It was an approach that extended into his financial dealings. Without Meyer-Wolden for advice, Becker was astonishingly profligate. For 10 years through the Noughties, he rented a substantial house in Wimbledon, paying £22,000 a month. As a financial decision, it made no sense: London property was accelerating in value as never before and instead of investing in it, he was throwing away money in rent.
But then, he always preferred more adventurous investment to the straightforward. Fancying himself as being able to read the market better than others, Becker was forever telling friends of new opportunities he was chasing in cryptocurrency or Nigerian gold mines. As with his poker, his choices were rarely winners. When he was convicted earlier this month, the scale of his mismanagement was clear: in addition to the unpaid loan, Becker owed about £4 million to the Swiss authorities and about £800,000 in liabilities over a conviction for attempted tax evasion in Germany.
Still, we loved him. He was a hugely admired commentator for the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon for more than 15 years. He was a team captain on They Think It’s All Over. He was a columnist on this newspaper, twinkling with charm even as he missed his deadline.
He became, too, a successful coach, using his vast experience to help turn Novak Djokovic from a contender into a serial winner. Becker didn’t try to upgrade the Serb’s technique – he just told him how to win. And how Djokovic prospered, securing the Australian Open four times with Becker in his box.
Through it all, as the money disappeared in alimony, bad investments and relentless spendthrift habits, Becker just assumed the well of his career earnings would never run dry. Or that he could borrow from friends, as he was increasingly prone to do, telling them he was just looking for something to tide him over.
Even as he awaited sentence after being found guilty, he was photographed in Notting Hill looking at property with his latest girlfriend. He thought he could dodge his responsibilities to his creditors and keep on enjoying his wild spending. He was Boris after all.
He lived by different rules. Now finally his bluff has been called.
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