Boris Becker: ‘I’m still in the game. Just have to play better’
“I am a bad passenger,” says the six-time Grand Slam champion and undischarged bankrupt, as he tips the hotel valet and heads for the driver’s side of his Porsche. In his playing days, he drove to and from matches. “Can you imagine Djokovic or Federer doing that?”
I get it, I say, he wants to be in control. No, he explains, he just doesn’t feel safe in the hands of others.
So we drive through Munich, Boris Becker and I. A month earlier, the city was covered in snow and he was in jail. Now both are almost in the clear.
We park outside Eurosport’s nondescript studios. The 55-year-old grips the banister as he slowly climbs the stairs. His left knee, worn by years of big serving, is now metal. So are both his hips and his right ankle. Going through an airport scanner means “a lot of noise”. He shrugs: his body felt worse a decade ago.
Becker enters the studio and sits on a grey sofa, his hair closely cropped, his legs loosely spread. Everyone agrees it’s as if he’s never left. At least in this corner of German satellite TV, Boris Becker is back.
Sometimes he says he was “away”. Once he jokes about his “holidays”. But mostly Becker is too old for euphemisms. He was inside, incarcerated, in prison.
In April 2022, he was sentenced to two and a half years. He’d been unable to repay a €3.5mn loan. A jury found that he breached bankruptcy rules four times, notably by failing to declare that he owned the house where his mother lives and by making personal payments of €427,000 from a business account.
It was one of the most extraordinary celebrity falls. Becker was the youngest man to win Wimbledon. He won $25mn in prize money. He was Germany’s most famous sportsman and Britain’s favourite German.
Somehow he went from serving by the royal box to serving at Her Majesty’s Pleasure: inmate A2923EV, initially at HMP Wandsworth. He had messed up before — a tax fine in Germany; a child conceived while his then wife was pregnant and in hospital; a divorce from said wife; a farcical attempt to become a diplomat for the Central African Republic. John McEnroe once said that no other tennis player had to cope so much with fame as Becker. But no one expected it would come to this.
Then came a reprieve. In late 2022, with British prisons full to bursting, Becker was slated for deportation and early release. He flew back to Germany on a friend’s private jet.
Yet the mystery remained. Who gets into such a mess? Becker was a genial face on the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage — informed, polite, gently theatrical. Was it a facade?
He has agreed to speak to the FT, his first English interview since his conviction; he used to borrow a fellow inmate’s copy of the paper in jail. He’s dressed in the same black baseball cap that he wore to court. He frames his return to Munich as a warning to Prince Harry: “Don’t forget where you come from, because you may have to go back there. And marriages don’t always last for ever, last time I checked.”
When Becker’s TV work is done for the day, we drive to a Bavarian restaurant. He says it is probably the restaurant he has eaten in the most in his life. Does it feel strange to be back?
“No, it feels surprisingly very normal. I really didn’t have many flashbacks [to prison],” he says calmly. “They say that after a certain number of years inside it can affect you mentally. But I was eight months and six days, so that was too short, I think.”
I start to ask about the past. “How about we get the order out of the way?” he says. We joke about the diet of Novak Djokovic, whom Becker coached for three years. “He was very extreme to the point where sometimes I would say, ‘You gotta eat something, you cannot just live on . . . air!’”
Becker chooses tuna, and I go for the vegan roast.
We’ve been given a wood-panelled private area. “The cell is not much bigger than this,” he remarks. The judge who sentenced Becker said he had shown “no remorse” and “no humility”. Becker now has a different tone. “I’m very aware that I’ve been given a second chance.” He is “humbled” that Eurosport, Puma and other partners have stuck with him.
Inside, he learnt acceptance: “If you look back too much, and you get downhearted, and you accuse the judge or the jury or God knows who else, you’re not gonna get closure . . . The hardest thing in tennis is to forget the double fault or the missed chances, and most players can’t. Only the very good ones clean them out and really look forward to the next chance. That’s what I’m doing.”
How did he find acceptance? “HMP Wandsworth is, in plain English, a shithole. It’s a dangerous place. After the first week, I realised that this is survival, and if I spend any time looking back, I’m losing. I need all my energy to survive every single day. This is why I’m sane.
“The moment they come with the keys — you hear it, it’s a noise you never forget.” But mostly, “you’re literally killing time. In my case, I do have a pretty strong mind. I have a good imagination, I have a good memory. You really live in your head.” He kept himself busy thinking what he would do differently.
His self-confidence may also explain his fall. Becker divorced his first wife, Barbara, in 2001, soon after retiring as a player. He agreed an expensive divorce, plus millions more in child support for his daughter, Anna, conceived at the London branch of Nobu, plus €6.5mn to settle the German tax avoidance case. A decade later, he started missing payments — to his second wife Lilly’s hairdresser, to the gardeners at his Spanish villa, child support.
He took an emergency loan from billionaire John Caudwell, but failed to pay it back within three months. The interest rate shot up to 25 per cent. He didn’t remortgage a property quickly enough. “He is not a sophisticated individual when it comes to finances,” pleaded his lawyer. In 2017, Becker was declared bankrupt. His debts totalled £50mn.
“You take things for granted, not immediately, but over years. You do like to listen to people who compliment you more than they criticise you.” But he sticks to his line. His criminal conviction was “stupidity, it was naivety, it was bad advice. But it wasn’t bad intention . . . I wasn’t hiding money under the bed, you know. I wasn’t hiding money in a foreign bank account. But what you also learn is that: you’ve gotta take care of your own shit.”
Was he treated fairly? He sighs. “If my name was Peter Smith, and I wouldn’t have won Wimbledon at 17, I probably wouldn’t have had the prosecution going after me with 29 counts [he was acquitted on most charges, including one linked to hiding his Wimbledon trophies]. I was one of their most famous cases. But if I wouldn’t have made some of my mistakes, they wouldn’t have had a target. It always takes two.”
There were stories that he received special treatment in prison — drinking tea with the guards. “Complete rubbish.” He has taken legal action against someone who said he got off lightly. “Yes, I have good media lawyers and, yes, I did sue a newspaper or two, but it’s so often and so much!”
I cut into my starter: beetroot and aubergine neatly disguised as steak tartare. Becker stabs at a salad.
At Wandsworth, he found work teaching maths and English. That allowed him out of his cell for five hours a day, “which is what you want, because inside the cell you die”. After two weeks, he was told that, as a foreigner, he’d be deported. “You ask other inmates, what does it mean? You ask 10 inmates, they give you 10 different opinions.”
A fortnight later, he was told he was being moved to Huntercombe prison, in Oxfordshire, starting from scratch. “Because I didn’t have a job I was in my cell two months, 22 hours a day. There’s a lot of noise outside. People scream, people banging the door, music. I was surrounded by murderers, drug dealers, people smugglers. They’re next door! [It’s not that] because you’ve committed fraud, you’re in the safe section. At first, you’re scared, because this guy killed two people with his hands, he’s already doing 18 years. Imagine! He becomes your buddy. I’ve heard in German prisons, it’s different.” For months, he was unable to call his children in Germany. Eventually, he got a job teaching sports science and philosophy, particularly Stoicism.
Does he believe prisons rehabilitate people? “Short answer: no.”
Sympathy for Becker abounded. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp wanted to visit him, but the prison feared for his safety. Djokovic gave Becker’s partner Lilian Monteiro and children free tickets to his matches. There were dozens of handwritten letters, including a three-pager from Michael Stich, Becker’s longtime German rival. “Heartfelt, emotional, kind-hearted. I was reading it and I was crying. This guy that I always hated wrote me the best letter in jail!” The letters made him think, “Yeah, I’ve done a few mistakes but I must have done a few good things too!”
Becker told Lilian, the daughter of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe’s former defence minister, that he would understand if she left him. “I told her: you’re much younger than me, you don’t have to wait. She said: we’re a team, we’re going to do this together . . . You really find out who loves you and who doesn’t.”
He declines to say how they met. “I may have been too open in my private life before. So I swore to her: nobody will know how we met, many years already, because she’s not a public person. She has a couple of masters degrees. She’s a smart woman. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing with me, but she must love me.” He is still legally married to Lilly, but Lilian, 32, is “my partner for life”.
Religion helped Becker, too. “Inside I became much more religious, and it really holds you. Because inside it’s very easy to become a criminal.” Bible studies on Friday afternoon were a “highlight”. It was “very religious, but not in a weird way”.
In his playing days, in luxury hotels, Becker had to resort to sleeping pills. But in prison, even though “the mattress was the smallest I’ve had in my life . . . I slept so well. Maybe I needed to sleep.”
Prinzregentenstrasse 73, 81675 Munich
Bottle of water x2 €23.80
Lamb’s lettuce salad, with shavings of Belper Knolle cheese €21
Yellowfin tuna €49
Baby spinach €9
Winter vegetables €9
Vegan tartare of aubergine, beetroot and shimeji mushrooms €21
Sunday roast of portobello mushrooms and celeriac €29
Double espresso x2 €15.60
Total inc service €230
By now he is eating tuna steak, and I am mopping up vegetable jus with celeriac.
As for the private jet, Becker insists the authorities “wanted to get rid of me, because whatever happens in prison, not everything is legal. If there’s too much eyes on Huntercombe or Wandsworth, it’s not good for the prison.” What’s he referring to? “I can’t tell you. It’s an unwritten code that you don’t say it.”
I ask about his kids, and for the first time he looks unsteady. His eyes redden. He used to speak to his oldest son Noah, now 29, in English, to insulate him from all the German media coverage. But there was no insulating him and brother Elias when they visited prison. “They were scared. And they saw that I wasn’t scared . . . In a way I’ve got more credibility now.”
The biggest change is with Anna, now a 22-year-old model. “I had to come all the way to jail for us to finally speak every weekend.” Why didn’t they speak before? “Maybe I was too timid, or maybe was she was too timid, or I felt too guilty, or she wasn’t comfortable. I don’t know.” It’s “a permanent change”. Anna is on Germany’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. “We talked a little bit about her fee, and she trusted my advice, about how to bluff.”
But his fourth child, Amadeus, 13, lives with his mother Lilly in London, where Becker can’t visit. “That’s a tough one . . . We speak on FaceTime every other day.”
Lilly recently accused him of being “a devil” for failing to pay child support. Becker insists that he’s “not allowed” to pay because of bankruptcy restrictions. Lilly’s behaviour, he says, is “really uncool”.
How do his children see him? “Papa.” And his tennis career? “They don’t care.”
Before I met Becker, I watched the footage of the 1985 Wimbledon final, diving volleys and all. After he won, a courtside interviewer demanded: “Let’s look at those knees! Has a championship ever been won on a man’s knees before?” The boy from the small town of Leimen had become public property.
“It still gives me the chills. But this Wimbledon fairytale — this wunderkind — that story’s over. And I’m not too upset about it. Because it was impossible to live up to. It was impossible to be compared in anything else I do to my Wimbledon title at 17. I’m not a wunderkind. The acceptance was that: this is over. Let me live a little bit. I’m not the best but I’m not the worst either.”
After winning Wimbledon for the first time, he retained the title the following year — “which was a far bigger achievement, but it counted less!” He became world number one, ousting Ivan Lendl. “People forget sometimes, in order to become number one, you have to be a bit crazy. You have to do things out of the norm. To win Wimbledon at 17 and 18, you have to be insane — to think that you can do that. So yeah, I am a little bit crazy, a bit insane.”
He had idolised Marlon Brando and James Dean and longed to escape his domineering father. After finding success, he found women, too — and lost focus. Things might have been smoother if he’d won his first title when he was 20 or 23. But he never had the relentless drive of Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. “Even if I could have won 22 Grand Slams, why would I want to do that?” Tennis wasn’t enough for the son of an architect. “Sometimes I wasn’t giving my all because it wasn’t worth it.”
How would he have challenged Djokovic, Federer and Nadal? “I would have faced up in the locker room, I would have made a comment about their wives.” His rivals, like McEnroe, Lendl and Pat Cash, were “more personal” — “You had to separate us because otherwise there was a punch.” Today’s players are too respectful of each other, he says: “They lose before they go on! After the match they all hug each other. You don’t know who’s winning, who’s losing.”
I bring it back to the money. Where did it go? “I’ve never earned as much as reported. Just look at the prize money.” $25mn? “Before taxes and costs!” His lawyer said his career earnings were $50mn.
“I was not careless. I had good investments with the car dealerships, with real estate. I was cash-poor and asset-rich. You have a divorce, you have another one. It goes quick! It wasn’t that I was spending it on the Ferrari and the gold Rolexes. It wasn’t also that I was poor. I had a lot of income, but I had a lot of expenditure. I’ve financed three families.”
He tells me that his dream was to become a billionaire and buy a football club. He denies reports that he lost £10mn investing in Nigerian oil. He did buy a 12-bedroom villa in Mallorca, and spend £22,000 a month renting a house in Wimbledon. He was “maybe too generous” with gifts. During his trial, he was seen entering Harrods. “That photo is actually wrong. I was hiding from the paparazzi. I never shopped at Harrods.”
As for the unauthorised payments for which he was sentenced, “I used that money to pay my ex-wife child support, to support my wife at the time, to pay rent, to pay for my doctor for my knee surgery, and to pay for my lawyer’s bill that advised me that I can do that.
“The British justice system is brutal — for everybody! Including for me. I’ve paid back in the region of €16mn for [failing to repay] a €3.5mn loan. Don’t ask me my opinion because I might get arrested again . . . I lost my house in Germany, my flat in London, my house in Mallorca.”
Has he learnt his lesson? “What lessons should I have to learn? That I have to be careful with my money. Yes. Should I have better advisers? Yes . . . When I’m at my best in tennis, who do I listen to in my matches? I listen to myself. I’m going to start listening to my common sense, instead of having these tens of advisers and lawyers. I’m actually pretty good with numbers, believe it or not.”
Later, when I check his figures for the charges he faced and the jail time he served, I find they are off: he faced 24 charges, not 29, and spent seven months and 17 days inside.
Is Lilian now in charge? He bristles. “I allow her to be in charge because she’s proven right. If I had this woman in my playing days, I probably would have won more, because she would guide me, making sure that I’m hungry when I’m supposed to be hungry.”
In 2022, his lawyer pleaded that Becker had “literally nothing” and no chance of rebuilding his career. Times have changed. He should leave bankruptcy this year, although he is around £400,000 behind on the agreed payments to the trustee. “Do I start to make money? Yes.” His new advisers “see that the brand Boris Becker is probably hotter now than it’s been for a long, long time.”
Prison may be a semicolon, not a full stop, just as it was for US TV guru Martha Stewart. He hasn’t picked up a tennis racket since his release: “I play when I absolutely have to.” He also avoids commentating on women’s tennis, lest he make a gaffe. But he loves the sport and loves TV. “I’m already in talks for doing a whole series of talkshows. Boris Becker meets Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mike Tyson or Michael Jordan.” Apple TV+ will soon stream a documentary on his life, directed by Alex Gibney.
He likes talking politics. He takes a swipe at British MPs’ failings, including Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. “They gotta be more responsible with their actions!” he exclaims, without apparent irony. Father of four mixed-race children, Becker has long spoken against racism. “I met a lot of racists in prison, proper Nazis. So one of my jobs was to explain [to] a racist why it’s completely foolish to think that white is better than black. We all came from the mother continent of Africa, so technically even you are 0.01 per cent black. There goes the whole point of racism.” (It helped that, during these jail conversations, he was protected by “the bad boys, they liked me”.) His mother was a refugee from what is now Ostrava in the Czech Republic.
“We should be careful how we deal with foreigners . . . Aren’t we all a bit foreigner?” He has a good commentator’s knack of making whatever he says sound profound.
For now, he can’t commentate at Wimbledon. “I’d love to be back . . . I’m in contact with the guys and they want me back, when I’m allowed to go back. That won’t happen this year . . . The door is not closed.”
He can apply for permission to enter the UK, but says he’s worried about being sent back to prison. “Because I’m on licence until October 2024, would I take a chance? . . . I have people who don’t like me . . . If an unfortunate situation happens, whether that’s in the pub, or I meet the wrong friend, or the ex-wife goes crazy. Shit can happen. Everybody says, ‘Boris, don’t risk it.’” I wonder if his real fear is being shunned by the All England Club. He insists: “Prison life is a shit life, and I don’t want to go back.”
Becker had a second chance after his German tax case. Why is this time different? “Again, we have to clarify what was it . . . We all struggle with our taxes. And the more money you have, the more complicated it gets.” He returns to 2022, less contrite now. “The jurors . . . half of them were under 30, I don’t think they truly understood what this case was really about.”
I try to pay the bill and continue the conversation, but I miscalculate and end up paying a Becker-esque tip of 30 per cent. Bankruptcy — it’s easier than you think.
I have now been with Becker, on and off, for eight hours. He is easier to talk to than almost any other celebrity I’ve met. He seems kind and unguarded. But he is also elusive. On court, he hated losing. If he is viscerally pained by his recent defeats, he hides it well. “Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance.”
Celebrity culture breeds redemption stories: tearful remorse. But it strikes me that tennis has taught Becker another option: redemption by amnesia. You can dive for a volley and, whether you make it or not, the crowd will cheer. You can be a set down, two sets down. You can always turn it round, if you play better than your opponent. Becker nods. “I’m still in the game. Just play better. Just have to play better.”
Self-belief is his strength; self-belief is his weakness. You conquer the world at 17, and you can’t believe you have limits. We walk back to the Porsche, and he hands another healthy tip to another hotel valet. I enjoyed being taken for a ride by Boris Becker. I realise not everyone can say that.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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