A few weeks ago, bankrupt tennis legend Boris Becker was in court facing trial for hiding from his creditors, among other high-value acquisitions, the Wimbledon Cup he won when he was 17. It was a heartbreaking part of Becker’s modernization of a world that treats even Lemon & Spoon race medals from school days as family heirlooms. You can feel his pain, and you can understand his connection to the memories of his glorious past.
However, there was a sense of inevitability when the former Wimbledon champion was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on Friday for avoiding paying a £3m loan on his luxury property in Mallorca, Spain.
Those who lived through the summer of ’85 would never want the strawberry-blond German boy to give up the gold trophy he had won by risking his tip on those sacred English meadows, but was badly beaten. On that day, he played the kind of tough tennis that made John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors look like former superstars from the paddle age.
Rarely has a youth’s better-directed concern on the sporting scene or its audacity been so promising. At 54, Baker has not grown gracefully. His tense, puffy face is a testament to his volatile life, dangerous relationships, financial adventures and costly wardrobe flirtations.
Baker, like everyone else, needs to face the consequences of his actions but only for that magical night does she feel the law has to avoid the path past his prize treasury.
Around the time Becker appeared in court to avoid a prison sentence last month, the Wimbledon champion posted yet another shock and upset in the tennis world. Ash Party, just 25, announced that she doesn’t own it anymore and that she’s retiring.
There is a fine thread connecting Baker and Barty. They both faced the blinding lights when they weren’t quite ready. But history shows that talented tennis players, with disparate personalities and perspectives resembling chalk and cheese, reacted differently to the situation.
In her final farewell on Instagram, Barty mentioned how last year’s Wimbledon title changed her both as a person and as an athlete. “It was my one and only dream that I wanted in tennis, which really changed my view and I had this gut feeling (about retirement) after Wimbledon and I talked to my team a lot about it.”
If the 2021 Grand Slam on turf satiated the Queenslander, the Australian Open title, two months ago, quenched her thirst forever. For the multi-talented Party — a few years ago, I hit Big Bash after a few serious hitting sessions — it’s time to look for new challenges.
So did Barty, unlike Becker, lack the mental strength to hold the Wimbledon title and play competitive tennis for nearly two decades? Or Barty wanted more of her life, not eager to live out of the suitcase or follow the hotel routine to the playground throughout her youth.
Walking the career paths of Baker and Barty gives insight into the changing sports ecosystem and the priorities of the stars. It also answers some important questions.
Baker’s Wimbledon 85 was a milestone in the game’s history far more important than Barty’s title in 2021 on grass. The German boy, in tight white shorts, was trotting around Wimbledon Central as if in his living room. He would dive on the grass to hook up aerial balls, and roll quickly to get back on his feet and finish the run. Becker was someone unparalleled in the tennis world.
He was the first to win Wimbledon from the country. His coach famously described him as “German engineering at its best.” More than 50,000 Germans arrived in Lymen, Becker’s hometown of 10,000, to give him a warm welcome.
But Becker had his coach Ion Tiriac at his side, a fearsome Romanian with a biker moustache known as the “Brasov Bulldozer” in the ring. Years later, Becker would remember the conversation he had with him after the Champions Ball, the appearance of British Morning Television and the call from the German chancellor. Young Baker was listening and drinking the wisdom of Teriyac. The coach listed the sequence that would follow his success and how he should be prepared to face the risks of fame.
It helped that Baker was wired in a different way. He had a deep philosophical understanding of fame. A few years ago, he talked about how everyone wants to become famous without understanding why they are striving. “I started playing tennis because I love the game, I loved the competition. The sideshow that happens when you win a big title is more important to others than you.”
He was saying that the media and fans – those who define fame – were not important to him. He said the newspapers could never imagine the effort he put in to win, plus he could do his best even in front of an empty center court because he loved the game and the competition.
“At 18, I was a multi-champion in Grand Slam tournaments, had money in the bank, was successful, was famous, so why would I go back at 19, 20, 21, 25 and 28? Because I love sports. If it was just about fame, money, and fortune I won’t play at the age of twenty-five.”
So when Barty left the game at the age of 25, does that mean she didn’t like the game that much? No, over time, sports sensibilities change, too.
Baker agrees, too. “When I played, you lived so much in the moment, you can’t imagine it now. There was no internet, no mobile phone. We just had The Times, The Telegraph, The Mail in those days. It was a different kind of noise. There were no conferences. Long press, and there were no huge headlines.”
The world has changed. In 2022, early smoking cessation was a declaration of one’s love for the beloved sport. When attention intrudes into personal lives, and endless company commitments, agents obsessed with numbers greatly overwhelm what was once a passion that can turn into a chore.
Sports can turn into a toxic absorption pit at the first sign of success, as social media turns every epilogue into a headline into a stifling, accessible mess. Young athletes this bombarded will always struggle under the harsh and extreme spotlight, which can overwhelm the simple pleasures of hitting the ball with a bat, Becker could fall back on simple at the time.
Barty and the youth of today are wiser about the other side of early fame and have learned to prioritize mental health. Perhaps, Becker had a longer and brighter playing career but Barty had a better retirement plan.
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