Boris Becker: The former tennis star whose debts have caught up to him

Boris Becker leaves after his bankruptcy offences trial at Southwark Crown Court in London (REUTERS)
Boris Becker leaves after his bankruptcy offences trial at Southwark Crown Court in London (REUTERS)

The most famous picture of Boris Becker was taken in 1985, moments after the thunderbolt serve that made him the youngest men’s singles winner in Wimbledon history. With Centre Court in raptures, Becker stood on the baseline and balanced the silver-gilt trophy precariously on top of his head.

Amid the ferocity of the unseeded 17-year-old’s run to the final – all fizzing serves, acrobatic volleys and wild fist pumps – it was easily forgotten quite how strikingly youthful he was. But in that photograph, the smile is a little more awkward and uncertain, his eyes wide and filled with nerves and excitement. Becker’s sudden thrust into the spotlight had illuminated a multitude of emotions and, in a sense, it has remained that way ever since.

It has taken on a different glare in recent years, though, and the toll of Becker’s financial issues has diminished the magnetic aura he once wielded. Earlier this month, he was found guilty of four offences under the Insolvency Act after Southwark Crown Court heard accusations of Becker concealing millions of pounds in assets from creditors – after having been declared bankrupt in 2017.

On Friday, Becker was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for hiding £2.5m worth of assets and loans to avoid paying debts. He was acquitted on a further 20 charges in total, including one relating to the whereabouts of the same Wimbledon trophy that made him famous. Judge Deborah Taylor said Becker was “in chaos” when the bankruptcy order was imposed. She said she accepted the “humiliation you may have felt” but “there's been no humility”.

Becker's lawyer told the court the 54-year-old had been left with “literally nothing to show for what was the most glittering of sporting careers”.

It is a shame that has been self-inflicted as Becker’s fortune – once estimated at £38m – became decimated by debt, but it is a shame nonetheless.

The fall has been no less dramatic than the rise. It wasn’t long before he affirmed that he was no flash in the pan either after that first Wimbledon win, as the serve-and-volley style he’d perfected over hundreds of hours in the small town of Leimen (where he was born) led him to retain his Wimbledon title the following year, with an emphatic straight sets win over Ivan Lendl in the final. His parents – Elvira and Karl-Heinz Becker – had had other plans for him according to Becker. “I was supposed to be a lawyer, a doctor, something like that,” he said in one interview. Although his father, an architect, built the hometown tennis club where Becker started to hone his craft.

Becker’s explosive ability was matched by an exuberant personality and, for a while, the tennis world seemed to orbit around him. When a third Wimbledon title preceded his maiden triumph at the US Open in 1989, Becker was arguably at the peak of his powers.

Boris Becker with his family after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon aged 17 in 1985 (PA Archive)
Boris Becker with his family after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon aged 17 in 1985 (PA Archive)

It wasn’t until victory at the Australian Open in 1991 that Becker officially scaled to the top of the world rankings, and there is only one way to go from there. That same year, Becker met the model and actor Barbara Feltus in a bar in Munich. At that stage, Becker was considered more recognisable than Germany’s chancellor, a global sporting icon. His marriage to Feltus in 1993 made him the poster boy for a progressive Germany still wrestling with its identity.

On the court, a renaissance carried him to a sixth grand slam title at the Australian Open in 1996, but Becker’s career had long begun to meander and then wane. Some might fairly suggest that his potential went unfulfilled, but it was always that mercurial streak that seemed to make him such a potent force.

It wasn’t until after he retired in 1999 that disorder seemed to seize control over Becker’s life. “In sport, you’re called old when you are 31. It affects your confidence and self-belief,” he has said of that time. “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? It’s about finding a new role that satisfies you as much.” His interests have since included poker – which he says shares the same need for discipline and concentration as tennis. He had winnings of around £90,000 in tournaments between 2008 and 2016.

His 2001 divorce from Feltus became fodder for television channels and tabloid front pages in Germany, with an executive at ARD, Fritz Pleitgen, declaring the country’s obsession with the relationship’s unravelling as “the absolute low point for television”. His divorce settlement – which Becker has called “expensive” – has been estimated to have cost him millions of pounds.

Becker furiously denied claims he had conceived a child during an infamous brief encounter in a cupboard at the Nobu restaurant in London with Russian waitress Angela Ermakova, but he eventually admitted to the fact after a DNA test. A financial settlement, called “generous” by the High Court judge presiding, was agreed in 2001 to provide for the child – Anna.

In 2002, Becker walked out of a German court convicted of tax evasion. He had pleaded guilty to evading about €1.7m of tax by claiming to live in the “offshore” haven of Monte Carlo at a time when his main residence was in Munich. He was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence and a substantial fine.

“That was my most important victory,” Becker said at the time. “I am a free man. That is the most important thing.”

He would later say in a 2005 interview: “Those three years, from 1999 to 2002, were the toughest of my life.”

A selection of trophies from the tennis career of Boris Becker (PA Wire)
A selection of trophies from the tennis career of Boris Becker (PA Wire)

In 2009 Becker married Sharlely “Lilly” Kerssenberg. The couple would separate in 2018 having had one son, Amadeus. Becker has two sons from his marriage to Feltus, Elias and Noah, and joint custody of his daughter Anna.

Becker remained a distinguished figure within tennis. He spent three seasons as Novak Djokovic’s coach from 2014 to 2017 as the Serbian overthrew the duopoly of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Having once joked that he was “top of a short list” of Britain’s famous Germans, he remained embedded in British hearts as the jocular star of the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage.

In 2017, he was declared bankrupt by a London court over his failure to pay a substantial debt to a private banking firm. A former business partner, Hans-Dieter Cleven, claimed that Becker owed him more than £30m. That case was rejected by a Swiss court.

He attempted to claim diplomatic immunity from bankruptcy after being made the Central African Republic’s attaché for sports, culture and humanitarian affairs to the European Union. The country’s foreign minister, Charles Armel Doubane, later claimed there was no record of Becker’s position and the bizarre episode concluded when Becker dropped his claim in late 2018.

The desperation betrayed the scale of Becker’s disarray and it was laid bare during his trial this month. Becker told the court that bad publicity had damaged “brand Becker”, meaning he struggled to make enough money to pay off his debts. Becker was found guilty of making £350,000 worth of secret payments the day after declaring bankruptcy and hiding assets including a £1.3m home in Leimen and a £692,000 loan he received from a Liechtenstein bank.

Becker’s defence barrister, Jonathan Laidlaw QC, said there was an element of the former tennis star “burying his head in the sand”. Perhaps the teenager who grew up in the public eye never grew out of the naivety that could be seen at Wimbledon all those years ago. His legacy has lost much of its glory.