Exclusive interview: Boris Becker on his ‘intimate affair’ coaching Novak Djokovic
Former world No.1’s partnership with tennis’ current top dog may be longer-lasting and more rewarding than many of the German legend’s relationships
When Boris Becker starts talking about “an intimate affair”, the mind leaps for the obvious quip. This is a man whose autobiography, titled ‘The Player’ in English, has a chapter devoted to women.
But the former world No.1 (tennis that is, no rankings as yet for the other thing) is talking about a more rewarding – and longer-lasting – relationship than some of his many conquests: his coaching partnership with the current No.1, Novak Djokovic.
It may not be an all-consuming liaison – Djokovic is cruising to another title in California while Becker talks to me some 11,000 kilometres away in Shenzhen – but has been a fruitful one, the Serb having reached even greater levels of dominance since the pair teamed up in December 2013.
Djokovic has won five of nine available grand slam titles in those 27-odd months, with his 2015 season perhaps the greatest in tennis history.
Unlike some of Boris’ relationships – in and out of tennis – this one looks like lasting some time. Becker binned his first mentor, Gunther Bosch, at the age of 19, showing little ruth when he felt the man who had guided him since childhood had no more to offer a two-time Wimbledon winner.
“I think the big difference there was I was a real teenager when I worked with Bosch – he was more of ... father figure is the wrong word, but more looking after the private Boris, because my coach really was Ion Tiriac,” says Becker.
“Once you’re 19, 20 you don’t want that any more. You want to be taken seriously as a young adult, as a man, you want to learn more about the sport because you feel comfortable outside the ropes, so I was looking for new inspiration on the court.
“With Novak it was different – when I met him professionally he was 25, 26 and he was already very comfortable in his private life.
“Having said that, I think it’s very important that real chemistry and respect exists between one another because you do spend a lot of time together, so you better like and respect the guy you’re working with.
“I think that is the case – I was honoured to be invited to his wedding which was a very private affair, I was one of the first to see his son Stefan, so he lets me into his private life which I respect very much.
“I think it’s important for me to understand that side, to understand how he ticks. Coaching one guy is very personal, almost an intimate affair – you really need to be open to each other about what’s possible and what’s possible tomorrow.”
Becker says it took “say six months to really understand one another”.
In those early months, the partnership might have seemed a doomed romance to outsiders, with Djokovic going out of the 2014 Australian Open in the quarters, ending a 25-match Melbourne winning streak, and failing in his bid to win a first French Open in the final against Rafael Nadal.
Becker was brought in specifically to boost Djokovic in the slams, so the Serb might have had questions; a trip to Becker’s SW19 “living room” answered them.
“I think when I took him under my wings for the first time in 2014 at Wimbledon – my home, my back yard, my living room – I think he learned a few things he hadn’t heard before,” says the German.
“And then to finish the tournament as the winner was the stamp that said, ‘This relationship works.’
“He likes to hear, he listens to what I want him to do, so that was the proof.”
In his book – written two years before the Djokovic link-up – Becker says, “world-class players, say Wimbledon winners, rarely make good coaches”. So how has he managed it?
Part of the key has been subsuming the ego, says Becker, a man famed for many things but not his lack of self-regard.
“If you have success as a player you understand the game inside out; it depends on your personality and age when it’s time to give back,” he says.
“The biggest problem for world-class players becoming immediate coaches – it’s not about them, it’s about the player. If you want to be successful in tennis it has to be about you, you have to be very egoistic and central focused, but as a coach the opposite is true.
“You have to mature as a person to understand that if you want to be a successful coach it’s not about you – it’s about the person you’re coaching.”
Becker’s life was transformed utterly and irrevocably, not always for the best, on that July day in London in 1985 when the unseeded 17-year-old became the youngest-ever grand slam winner and an overnight worldwide superstar. Now 48, it’s taken time to be able to put that ego to one side, he admits.
“It comes with age, comes with experience, comes with success and it’s a progress – you’re not immediately a great coach just because you played tennis,” he says.
“I coached juniors before, was head coach of German tennis for a long time so I was able to do the transition quite quickly, but I think there’s a big difference in coaching a top-10 player or the best player in the world.
“You need more maturity, more experience and I think that takes a couple of years. With us it started off pretty quickly, pretty good ... [I was] 45, 44, I had retired when I was 32 so there was enough time in between for me to understand all that.
“You have a different perspective of your life. The big challenge for a lot of successful athletes is what you’re going to do after: when you’re in your mid-30s and all of a sudden called old, where in normal life you might be just starting your first job at that age. It’s a progress, it’s a process and that takes time.
“You need to find your comfort level in the next phase of your career. If it’s tennis and you’ve been the best playing, [changing that mentality] takes time.”
There is a hint however, that the ego has not been completely buried when asked how a peak Becker might have prepared to beat a peak Djokovic.
“I don’t want to lose my job so I’m not going to tell you!” he jokes. “But his pedigree speaks for itself. He’s a natural counter-puncher, baseliner, I was more a serve-volley, more offensive minded. I think he’s playing a lot more offensive since I came on board and therefore wins matches quicker.
“On slower surfaces he would be ahead – but on faster surfaces I think I’d have a chance.”
Becker is in Shenzhen to launch the first ever tennis academy under his name, at the sprawling Mission Hills resort. He promises to help unearth a new generation of Chinese talents to challenge at grand slams.
The cynical might suggest that it’s simply a nice little earner for Becker, who’s never been averse to making a few bob and even as we speak is clad head to toe in the garb of one of his sponsors, but he seems genuinely passionate about the project; he took the time to coach some of Hong Kong’s promising youngsters and sources at the HK Tennis Association said they were highly impressed with his dedication.
“A lot has to do with timing,” he says when asked why he’s getting involved in China. “I’m at a stage in my life where I can speak to teenagers and young players in a very professional way with my history, and now in the coaching I feel as a player and coach I’ve got enough knowledge to give to younger generations.
“I’m a big fan of China, it’s an incredible country with lots of opportunity. It has a long history in sport but not so successful in tennis – that’s my angle to it and I’d like to make a difference.
“You would think with such a pool of talent [China would have some top players], but like with many other sports China has been successful but for some reason not on the men’s side. Li Na is the obvious example that it is possible.
“At the moment there’s no Chinese male player in the top 150 of the world so it’s an obvious challenge – but I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t change in the future.”