Boris Becker on tennis, Wimbledon and Nobu: “if that’s what I’m remembered for, then I’m proud”

The youngest ever Wimbledon men's champion is happy to be remembered for three things – together they made him the proud father he is today

On a fine spring afternoon at the genteel Cannizaro House Hotel on Wimbledon Common, a black Mercedes-Benz S500 Coupé (entry-level price £96,000) is parked outside reception. Despite the brilliant sunshine, its owner has driven here, never mind that his own sprawling house on the common is within a five-minute stroll.

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One mile to the east is the All England Lawn Tennis Club, the place his professional heart lies. In 1985, he carved his niche in sporting legend there at the age of 17, by becoming the youngest man and the first non-seed to lift the golden Wimbledon men’s singles trophy. Gigantically popular on the greensward of SW19, he would reach six more finals there, winning two, along with three more grand slam titles and, fleetingly, occupy the world number one spot.

Today he is holding court in a first-floor suite set aside for a long day’s interviews to promote his new autobiography, published to mark 30 years since he made the Centre Court his own. A sign outside the room announces it as the Tim Henman suite.

Boris Becker grins at the mention of that as he rises in greeting. At 6ft 3in his physical presence is still commanding, the famous red hair paler now, the face at 47 understandably rounder, but less podgy than unkind photographs can suggest.

Clad in a Hugo Boss suit, open-necked shirt and white trainers, he has already spent an entire day talking to people like me. But still he leans forward to engage with every question as if eager to answer.

“I did the book to explain why Wimbledon is important to me as a player, commentator, coach and, above all, as a resident,” he said, his trademark pronunciation of the word “Wimbledon” appearing to omit all its vowels. “I never really had a chance to write it from my point of view.”

In which case it is something of a mystery what made up his 2004 autobiography The Player, or a second, Life Is Not a Game, published in Germany in 2013. Becker says he wrote the latest volume – Wimbledon: My Life and Career at the All England Club – so his four children would know his story in his own words, but the blurb for The Player says he produced that one for the same reason. Ah well. 

“Of course my children will read the book,” says Becker. “They love me, and they will want to read it.” 

His children are Noah, 21, and Elias, 15, from his first marriage, five-year-old Amadeus with his second wife Lilly, to whom he has been married six years this month, and 15-year-old Anna by Angela Ermakova.

Whatever else the public knows about Becker these days, they seem familiar with the circumstances of Anna’s conception. Of the half-dozen people I told of my impending interview with Becker, every last one responded with a clunky wisecrack advising me not to meet him at Nobu, the pricey Japanese restaurant in Mayfair.

In June 1999, having lost the last Wimbledon match of his career, Becker left his six-months pregnant wife Barbara at their hotel and went to Nobu, where his lightning encounter with Ermakova (in a broom cupboard, according to popular legend; on a staircase, according to Becker) resulted nine months later in their daughter Anna, now 15.

He would subsequently describe that Nobu coupling as the most expensive five seconds of his life. It cost him his first marriage, a divorce settlement approaching £10 million plus property, and a reported £2 million settlement on Ermakova for Anna. More than that, it cost him his public dignity. It made him the object of sniggers. 

If his new book mentions the episode, it isn’t covered in the two chapters I’m allowed to read before I meet him. The tome is said to be Becker’s homage to Wimbledon, although according to his press release, “It is not without a little criticism along the way.”

When asked, he agrees that actually these bugbears are very small – the now-discontinued custom of bowing to the royal box, and the rule that players must wear predominantly white.

Likewise, the promise that his book will say how he feels tennis has changed for the worse seems to amount to the presence of microphones on court (“Players are human beings and get p****d off if they serve a double fault, but they have to behave or get fined”), and the fact that the absence of social media in his pomp meant “we could have more fun at night”. 

Above all, the book pledges to expose the “many untruths” written about him. But ask what was the biggest of these, and he describes at length the unfairness that the runner-up at Wimbledon doesn’t receive greater acclaim. These are not epoch-making exposés.

“If they were big criticisms, I wouldn’t live here,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the club and most people in it. It’s my local tennis club.

“It’s incredible that it’s 30 years since I first won here. I can remember some of the feelings like it was yesterday. So many things are gone now that it seems a long time ago, but I drive by the club every day and it hasn’t changed.”

Does he think much about the passing of time? After all, in another 30 years, his time might be up.

“I’ll be 77,” he muses. “I hadn’t thought about it, but now you mention it…” He laughs.

At the very least, the landmark of 50 is within hailing distance. He grins again.

“I haven’t thought about that, either. I knock wood. I’m at a good moment in my life. The kids are well. I’m happily married. If that’s the case in three years, I’ll thank the Lord.”

But he carries the physical legacy of his playing days. “Yes, I have two new hips. The right ankle isn’t perfect. I have a limp. I feel it most of the time – worse if I fly. These are my battle scars. Tennis took its toll. I was still growing at 17. The medical help I had in 1985 was as good as it could be then, but… I can’t run any more. I bike. I play tennis, but only half the court, and only if you play with me, not against me.

“It doesn’t bother me. I played over a thousand matches. What do you expect? Get on with it. But keeping the weight off is much harder than when I played. Good food and good wine are my weaknesses. I like whisky and cigars – the good things in life.”

For Becker, born in the small German town of Leimen, Britain is now his principal home, so much so that his primary football allegiance has switched to Chelsea from Bayern Munich.

He spends months on the tennis circuit with Novak Djokovic, whose supremacy as world number one has been cemented since Becker became his coach 18 months ago. But Wimbledon is home for six months of the year, although he also owns property in Germany, Spain and the US.

“We speak English at home. I don’t live in Germany because of complete loss of privacy. Here I’m given space. People will politely say hello, nice you’re here, and then walk on. I’m not national property. German people feel an entitlement, that they own me.”

His first autobiography touched on his 2002 trial for tax evasion in Germany, which saw him sentenced to two years’ probation, along with the repayment of £2.17 million in back taxes.

“I wouldn’t say I feel alienated from Germany, but I’ve moved on,” he says. “It’s not sad for me, just a mature decision. I haven’t fallen out of love with my own country, and I don’t think they have with me. But recently I was in Germany and I spoke about brands, Europe, politics… and I was told that my German is very good. What did they expect? They love me, but they fell in love with a 17-year-old from a small town and have a hard time accepting that boy is now 47 and is no longer one of them.”

But connections remain. In January this year, his daughter Anna modelled at Berlin Fashion Week when she was still 14. Did he have concerns?

“I agreed to it, and as a responsible parent I want the best for her,” says Becker. “It was a one-off. I thought she looked lovely. It was always her dream to do it once. She’s mature enough to handle the situation.”

Asked how often he sees her, he replies: “Not enough. I’m a bit old-fashioned as a father. I’m the strict one. I like rules and regulations. Be responsible for your actions. They are all aware that they have been blessed with their mothers and me. Most kids have it much harder than them. They should be aware of that for the rest of their lives. There are some disadvantages with the fame, but the positives outweigh the negatives by a lot. I regret that they don’t all live with me, although I don’t know if my wife would be able to handle all of them in the same house. I’m happy they’re not involved in tennis. They wouldn’t be given a fair chance because of the comparisons with their famous father.”

And so to the final, tricky question. Three words, I tell him, are connected with his name: tennis, Wimbledon… Nobu. Does he feel that he besmirched his own legend? Is he aware people make jokes about him? Becker rubs his chin.

“I’m very proud of my daughter,” he replies.

But for a year he contested paternity until a DNA test proved it – and that only after his lawyers had argued that Ermakova had inseminated herself with his semen as part of a blackmail plot by the Russian mafia. It was not Becker’s finest hour, and it all took place under the global spotlight.

All these years later, the subject still haunts him. He could have refused to discuss it, politely or rudely. He could have ended the interview. Instead he fronts up.

“We were all stupid and not mature,” he sighs. “Tennis wasn’t always easy, and my Wimbledon experience wasn’t always pleasant. My life was so much about me then. I was too self-centred.

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“I’ve grown up, and I’m happy. My daughter Anna is one of the best things in my life. Those three words you mention… Nothing wrong with them. If that’s what I’m remembered for, then I’m proud.”