THE TRIALS OF A PHENOM - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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An older, wiser Boris Becker deals with new pressures

Last year Boris Becker proved that there is very little this side of Ivan Lendl that he can't handle on a tennis court. Last week Becker offered encouraging evidence of something equally important: that he can also handle the sometimes onerous demands of fame. He did so while impressively winning the Pilot Pen Classic in Indian Wells, Calif. In Sunday's final, he defeated Stefan Ed-berg 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, snapping the 15-match winning streak of the hottest player on the tour and supplanting the Swede as the No. 2 player in the world rankings. He did it on a slow hardcourt with improved footwork and a stroke variation that could soon eliminate the gap between him and the No. 1-ranked Lendl.

But what was really on the tennis world's mind was how the 19-year-old Becker would perform in his first tournament since the Australian Open in January. Both his play and his behavior there had left many wondering whether wealth and fame had caught up with him. In Melbourne, Becker had exploded in a McEnroesque fit of temper during a fourth-round loss to unseeded Wally Masur. Two days later came an emotional breakup with his longtime coach, Günther Bosch. It was apparently no coincidence that three months earlier a comely 22-year-old Monacan, Bènèdicte Courtin, had begun accompanying Becker to tournaments.

"You cannot change this rain when you have pressure like Boris," said a metaphorical but concerned Ion Tiriac, Becker's manager, early in the week at Indian Wells. "It is going to come, and if the guy is good, he is going to get through. If he is not any good, he is not going to get through. There is no more advice about it. Boris has to do it himself."

Against Masur, the 71st-ranked player in the world, Becker had become annoyed by line calls and a warning from the chair umpire for receiving coaching from Bosch. As the match progressed, Becker's behavior deteriorated. He hit balls toward the umpire's chair and out of the stadium; he spat water toward the umpire on changeovers; and in still greater fits of pique, he broke three rackets. His offenses cost him $2,000 in fines.

"If I knew why it happened, I wouldn't have done it," said Becker in Indian Wells. "I behaved bad. I did bad things that I never did before."

While contrite, Becker thought the media's reaction to the Masur match had been unfair. In the days that followed, he kept having to assure reporters, "I'm not like McEnroe," as one London tabloid headlined it. "It came to mind," said Becker, "that they can make you a hero in 24 hours, and they can destroy you in two."

The parting with Bosch—who has an apartment in the same building as Becker in Monte Carlo—was probably a bigger jolt. But close observers had noticed that Becker was becoming increasingly independent and that the time Bosch and Becker spent together away from tennis had steadily diminished since Courtin had come on the scene. The discipline-minded Bosch was distressed by the fact that Becker had begun missing practices and easing up in his conditioning drills. He was particularly unhappy when Becker arrived in Australia only six days before the tournament, leaving little time to practice on grass; the ever-diligent Lendl had arrived a full month early.

Becker reportedly told Bosch in Melbourne that he no longer wanted a full-time coach. Instead, he wanted Bosch to join him only at selected tournaments. Becker specifically did not want Bosch to come to Indian Wells. Bosch reacted by telling Becker they were through. He then told journalists that he was quitting because Becker no longer acted like a gentleman on court, no longer trained hard enough and had too many outside interests.

Two weeks later, Bosch tearfully admitted on German television that he would continue coaching Becker if asked. No offer came. "It's over now," said a close observer last week. "Boris has too much pride." Says Tiriac, "I think that it is the best thing that happened to both of them."

Those close to Becker believe he misses Bosch. If he does, he didn't show it at Indian Wells. "I don't think I'm lost," he said. "I have to do things on my own—going to the stringer, taking care of my shoes and clothes. So I guess it makes me more of an older guy."

A search for a new coach is underway. Tiriac says he favors a "Harry Hopman disciple" who knows what it's like to play on center court. Roy Emerson, who fits the description, has been mentioned as a leading candidate. Meanwhile, Frank Dick, a British trainer who has worked with two-time Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson, is helping Becker with his conditioning. "Just to become an athlete, finally," says Becker. The goal is to make the still-growing Becker more nimble on court. Says Pancho Segura: "If Becker gets quicker, he is going to be unbeatable."

But the biggest change in Becker's life is his relationship with Courtin, whom he met last year in Monte Carlo. Her presence represents an abrupt about-face in the Becker camp. Boris has said that he did not want a girlfriend until he was at least 25. And Tiriac had never allowed girlfriends in the entourage when he coached Guillermo Vilas.

"Ion knows not to challenge Boris," says a European journalist. "The boy has a will of iron." Becker's performance has been his best argument for Courtin. He has won four of the six tournaments that she has attended with him. Becker has declined to discuss their relationship with the press, while Courtin responded to a request for an interview by politely telling an intermediary, "I don't answer questions."

This much is known. She is the daughter of Monaco's chief of immigration. She speaks French, Italian and English and is learning German. Before joining Becker on tour, she was studying law. She once dated David Thieme, co-owner of the Lotus Formula I racing team. During Becker's matches last week she sat with Tiriac, who has obviously relaxed his anti-girlfriend stance.

Becker arrived in Indian Wells a week early. He and Courtin stayed in a sumptuous $2,600-a-night villa at the Grand Champions Resort, complete with 24-hour butler service. According to spies at Bumble and Bumble, the salon where Becker went for a haircut, Courtin wanted her man to bag his shaggy cut for a shorter look. He smiled and asked only for a quick trim.

Which is exactly what Becker administered to his opponents. Though admittedly nervous because of the scrutiny he knew he would be under in his first post-Melbourne match, Becker dispatched Tim Wilkison 7-5, 6-4. After that, he lost just three games to Scott Davis and then was intermittently brilliant in a 6-3, 7-5 win over Emilio Sanchez. In pasting Yannick Noah 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals, Becker made only three unforced errors, mixed his shots in a way that made even the usually dour Tiriac smile and broke Noah three times with overpowering returns of serve.

Although Tiriac was pleased with Becker's play, he said the events of the last month had affected his on-court demeanor. "No way Boris Becker is that calm," said Tiriac. "You guys [the press] hurt him. But it has made him more of a man and more solid."

Said Noah, a good friend of Becker's, "Boris is growing so fast, you can see the kid grow. He is still so young, but his life is full of many more changes than the normal person. Maybe it is best that he close himself a little, try to stay alone in the middle of the crowd."

"Becker loves tennis, just the act of hitting the ball," said Wilkison. "I think as long as he has that, he can cope with everything else. No way he's going to be like McEnroe or Borg, who didn't look like they were having any fun."

Becker seems to realize that his career will bring other challenges, and he took last week's tournament in stride. "I was playing well for six months, then I had one bad tournament, that was all," he said. "For me, there was never a question of being on a bad track.

"I don't think I have to prove something to myself. I did it already. Wimbledon—it was the big proof for me. The rest now, it just shows that I am in a good way of practicing and I'm in a good way of learning about the game."



Shortly after Mlle. Courtin joined Tiriac on Team Becker, longtime coach Bosch quit.



Becker defeated five formidable opponents at Indian Wells without even dropping a set.