Boris Becker has soft hands and a soft handshake.
Fans watch players undergo intense trials and experience extreme emotions on television. The camera is a voyeur and it brings you up so close with the star.
It lulls you into believing you know the man; you think of him as Boris, as someone you know. Just like the camera, even you are intruding. For, the man on screen is usually far removed from the man off court.
The handshake was a surprise. As were the man's mannerisms during the conversation. He does not look you in the eye for long but when he does, those impossibly blonde eyelashes flutter like wings in flight.
He gesticulates with his hands all the time to make a point. His whole upper body gets into motion when he is trying to emphasise — the shoulders shrug up to the ears and the arms spread out in appeal.
Even a day short of 45 and 13 years away from the game, Becker makes news.
As such, he is extremely wary, decidedly evasive of controversial statements, and still convinced that what he says or does is represented in a twisted manner by the press.
That way, like many a celebrity, great champions seldom accept that they are wrong. It just does not seem to be in sync with their neural networking. Perhaps, they always have to keep believing that they know best, to reach for that greatness. Always.
But then just how deceptive impressions can be while gauging the depth of a man becomes apparent in Becker’s response to one of the opening questions.
Is there anything else in life that matches up to holding a Wimbledon trophy?
“Ummm... (he pauses for just a moment). But, of course there is. Obviously, if life is surrounded by things you had done as a teenager and as a pro, then you'll have a poor life. Starting a family and having your own kids, maturing, that is more fulfilling and more important than winning a tournament.”
Time and again he reiterates that parents should just offer kids choices, not push them in a direction not of their own choosing.
“I won’t push any of my three sons into tennis. I’m going to give them choices but they have to make a decision, it’s their life not mine. It’s not a healthy relationship if parents push a child into sports. It’s good if parents think it’s the right choice but there is a limit. You should never cross it as a parent. Shouldn’t become the manager of the child, should be a father first.”
The sport, he believes, rewards talent but it worships hard work. That mesmerising uncoil of his serve looked real strenuous.
Not only did Becker leap into the delivery, he also had an impossibly arched back that transferred energy into a pronating shoulder. That should have left some permanent aches.
“No, you need to train. To play the way I did without training wasn’t possible. I won my first Wimbledon 27 years ago with that service action and I can still walk straight and am physically active. I’m 45 now. The serve in motion or the way I played hasn’t affected me at all.”
He does not set much store by Andre Agassi’s take in his bestseller biography ‘Open’. Agassi had said that he hated tennis and that it had taken a huge toll on his body.
“Some things Agassi wrote I see differently. Tennis is physical and individual. Tennis has given me a lot.
The reason Agassi is Agassi is because of tennis. When I talk to McEnroe and Sampras, our opinion is different than Agassi. Many people at certain age have body pains...I thought Andre spoke a bit disrespectfully about tennis, which I don’t share.”
Success, to Becker, rhymes with sweat. “The secret of success on center court depends on the hours you put in at practice. Success is not easy. You have to improve your game each year to not let the opponent get used to your game. That’s the secret of success for (Roger) Federer and (Novak) Djokovic.”
Even if you have the legs of a gazelle, tennis is still touted as a sport that’s more in the head than the limbs.
“That’s because tennis is complicated. If you’re just running, you won’t win. You have to think a lot. Be tactically astute and mentally strong. You need to cover travelling…make up on jet lag…the indoors and outdoors... it’s not one-dimensional. Basketball players play only indoors. Football is played for 90 minutes. Tennis matches go on for hours. What will you do in a long match? Get tired after four hours and stop? You need to be diverse, inventive.”
So, is one born with mental strength or do you build it? “It comes from within you. But can improve with right coaching. No one is born perfect.”
All the planning apart, Becker feels that there is something more basic in your expression on court; something atavistic. Like his dives. They weren’t planned. Weren’t some elaborate ploy to get ahead in mind games.
“It was instinct, actually. I wasn’t the fastest player, so I couldn’t get to some balls. Instead of letting them go, I decided to use my body a different way and dive. If I were quick as Federer I wouldn’t have to dive. It was a split-second decision. You can’t train for it. Can’t teach it. The coaches never stopped me because you can’t.
“All day long people may say things; you have to be grown up to play tennis. You have to be confident. You have to go by your instinct. Out there, you are all alone.”
Your kid may shake his rattle better than John McEnroe ever managed but without planning, ability alone won’t take a player far. So, are tennis players born or made?
“It’s a combination. Talent will only get you so far. Training is important. Discipline, right lifestyle is important. Talent will get you to places. But you won’t succeed if it’s purely based on talent.”
It ain’t the same
The new aerodynamic racquet frames of lighter, more forgiving, material have fundamentally altered the sport.
“Today, players are using, in a way, proper racquets which allow them to accelerate, use more spin and power three-four feet from behind the baseline. We used wooden racquets and had to learn different skills. We had to learn better technique because it had to be more correct.
“Today, players have extreme spins in serves and strokes, which weren’t possible in my days. You can argue that tennis is better today, but in my days it was more diverse. Heavy topspin, long baseline rallies — most today play one-dimensional except Federer. That should give others a hint that you won’t win as much if you’re a one-dimensional player.”
The men’s game doesn’t have much of his trademark game plan anymore, but Becker feels the skill could still do its magic. “No one plays serve and volley anymore. Most players aren’t used to it. But grasscourt is grasscourt. Low bounce is low bounce… if you play the right way on grass, you can be very successful.”
But some things never change. Like the heart of a champion. Despite having referred to Federer repeatedly as the ideal example for most of his assertions, asked if Federer would have beaten him, an indignant, “Of course, not!” proclaimed that the spring in his step may have dimmed but not the fire within.
Becker made vague allusions to getting involved in some project in India. India could certainly do with help. Forget a Becker, we don’t seem to even have another Leander Paes around the corner.
The brother called to ask how it felt to meet the legend. This writer felt curiously detached, to be honest. Our job allows us to snatch moments with men idolised by millions. It becomes all the more complicated when one has been an avid fan.
Maybe, it was the cultural difference, or perhaps Becker has just fended off too many nosey journalists but there was not a moment when he seemed to let his guard down during the interaction. It was as if he was still volleying away with the aplomb one admired so on court.
Or, maybe, it was just the soft hands from where the Becker I presumed as a fan just crystallised into the Becker I struggled to write on. The gap between perception and fact can sometimes be real wide.