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'For some I'm still 17 but you can't live for the image you have created'
Apart from tennis commentary, Boris Becker is busy building a business empire these days.
The chatter around the office had been building up to 4 pm, when a certain German was expected to walk into the Times of India office for a t�te-�-t�te. Four o'clock came and went. The wait became longer and the anticipation heavier. Finally, at around quarter past five, Boris Becker came into sight. It didn't take long for him to be surrounded by adoring fans who were also 17 when he won his first Wimbledon title. The floor burst into a flurry of activity as he made his way into the editor's office, where he was supposed to decide the agenda of the day's sports pages.
"So what's the news today!? " he said, thumping the table, immediately taking to his role as the guest sports editor.
Becker is used to being the centre of attention in a room. It's not difficult to see why. In a crisp white shirt and sand-coloured jacket and trousers, Becker still exudes the magnetism when he was a world number one - an indescribable physical presence common to all great athletes. His funny, knee-slapping manner disarms you and his honest answers sometimes surprise you. Within minutes he had the occupants of the room eating out of his hands.
He picked up the day's edition and wanted to find out more about India's troubles with the Olympic movement. "Sport is important and playing in the Olympics is very, very important. As an athlete, when you walk into the stadium with your hand on your heart, you realise what it's all about. This is an important issue, " he said.
His next question, predictably, was about tennis. Part of an era that gave the sport and the world great names like Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Becker occupies a slightly cushier spot. He was all of 17 when he won Wimbledon - the the firstever unseeded player and the first German to do so. Twenty seven years later, for many in his fatherland, he is still 17.
"For some, especially my home country, I'm still that 17-year-old, " he says. "For them it hasn't changed. I keep telling them that I'm 45 now, have a couple of grey hairs but the image of me as a 17-year-old was so strong, so perfect, so beautiful that they don't want it to change. They gave me a hard time when I was growing up but you have to live your own life. You can't live for the image that you've created. I've made some strides as a person. Of course, that 17-year-old is a door opener but once I'm in, I need to bring something to the table, " he said.
Becker retired at the age of 32 in 1999, after winning six Grand Slams and one Olympic gold medal. He leads a full life today, having married again, a Dutch model Sharlely 'Lilly' Kerssenberg, and playing dad to Amadeus Benedict Edley Luis Becker and Anna. Noah Gabriel and Elias Balthasar, his other sons live with their mother, Becker's first wife, Barbara in Miami.
So does he have any regrets about retiring when he did? "When I started playing tennis, I never thought I would be in the top 10, let alone win one Wimbledon, " he confesses. "Obviously I started dramatically, winning a lot in my first two or three years. The real question was where would I go from there. I was already at the mountain at 19, number two in the world. And the more difficult part became where do you find the motivation, the inspiration, the desire to continue. It's not the talent, the money or the girls. For me, it was the passion for my sport.
"I always admired the likes of Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg for their success but also for their longevity. Everybody can have a good year or two years but very few have a good career. So I decided that even though I may not win Wimbledon the rest of my life, I was going to give it a shot. This is what I am proud of, of having a long successful career and thankfully not just remembered for winning Wimbledon at 17. When I stopped, I was still in the top 10. And I didn't want people to tell me that you're now ranked 78 and it's bad for your brand. " For a man worth more than $100 million today, one can assume he's doing pretty well for himself.
Becker is a sharp observer of the game and he's not easily swayed by numbers and even though many call this generation of tennis players the best ever, Becker isn't convinced. "We had a lot more good players during my time than you have now. The competition was so severe that once you were in the quarters it was a question of who was better on that day. Then, for many years one could predict it would be a Federer-Nadal final. Of course, they were better than the rest. But that much better?
"You can't possibly compare generations, " he says, "The best I've played against was Pete Sampras on grass, Borg on clay and Agassi on hard court. They were all pretty good. But on his best day, would Borg have beaten Nadal on clay? On his best day, would McEnroe have beaten Federer on grass? Could I've beaten Federer on grass? Is there anybody in his generation who can challenge him on grass? In my generation there were 20 guys who on a good day could've beaten me. He's clearly the most successful tennis player of all time and I'm his biggest fan because he plays tennis the right way. He plays tennis the way parents would want their kids to learn. But is he better than Rod Laver? Laver won the Grand Slam twice. It's unfair to all the generations to say they were not as good just because they didn't have the media spotlight on them. They didn't have Nike sponsorship deals and marketing campaigns around them but they were successful. "
He has equally sharp views on German football and how Pep Guardiola's entry could shake things up at Bayern Munich - he's been on the board of directors of Bayern for the past decade, and is of course betting on his club to win the Champions League. "German football is to us what cricket is to you. Is Bayern better than Barcelona? At the moment, absolutely. Bayern has been knocking on the door for the last five years. We've been in three of the last four Champions League semifinals. We have a better record than Barcelona, they just won every time they reached (the final). Look at who is playing at Bayern - it's a nice mix of players. And I'm proud that Dortmund is there too. It just gives the right message about German football. The pressure is on Bayern. Last year Bayern was unfortunate but may be this year luck is on our side. Selffulfilling prophecy!" exclaimed Becker.
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