The imprisonment in London of the tennis legend Boris Becker for bankruptcy offences has triggered an outpouring of shock and disappointment in his native Germany, where he was once hailed as a national hero.
One former fan spoke for many when he said: “He made mistakes for which he’s rightly being punished. But maybe he’ll get up again one day, just like Becker, the tennis player, so often did.”
The writer Till Jecke, a sports reporter with the tabloid Bild, offered one of many recollections in Sunday’s newspapers of the day in July 1985 when the 17-year-old German became the youngest player to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title and “catapulted the somewhat stuffy ‘white sport’ into sheer galactic heights”.
“Boom Boom Becker,” as he was nicknamed at home for the way he pounded the court, captured hearts in Germany and across the world. His “Becker fist” and the “Becker pike”, when he’d hurl himself horizontally across the court in an effort to get every ball, were all part of the unforgettable magic mix of his play, Jecke said.
Such a contrast, then, was the scene in Southwark crown court on Friday when the 54-year-old was jailed for two and a half years for hiding millions of pounds’ worth of assets after being made bankrupt in June 2017.
“What now awaits him is brutal,” wrote Stefanie Bolzen, the London correspondent of Die Welt. She had watched as Becker, dressed in a tie in the Wimbledon colours of purple and green, was “whisked from the dock and into the security wing – no last embrace, no chance to be comforted”.
The treatment of a convicted man in the UK is considerably harsher than in Germany, she and several German commentators have pointed out.
Becker was taken at speed in a white high-security van to Wandsworth prison – poignantly less than 3 miles from Centre Court at Wimbledon, the scene of his greatest performance, as German media reported live at the scene.
He had clutched his belongings in an olive sports bag that, according to Bild – which had a team of reporters on the story trailing him over the past weeks of the trial – he had bought in Harrods the previous day.
Newspapers showed superimposed images of him against the backdrop of the gloomy Victorian prison, showing a typical cell. They pored over the details, from the nickname of Wandsworth as a “screws’ jail” to previous inmates – Oscar Wilde, Julian Assange – and the visiting times; just one visitor allowed a week, with whom no physical contact is allowed. There are courses in yoga, embroidery and hairdressing, Bild said, and even a gym, but the food, according to a lawyer whose clients had been imprisoned there, “is like mush”.
There is very little sympathy in Germany for Becker, a man seen to have brought his problems on himself after he was found guilty of hiding millions of pounds worth of assets.
“He could have averted this tragedy,” Der Spiegel said, “but he was not prepared to show any real remorse, or humility towards his creditors … at the very least he should have shown that he had learned from his mistakes.”
Yet commiserations over the sportsman’s fall from grace were in plentiful supply. “For the human being Boris, I’m sorry,” the former football manager Reiner Calmund said. Günther Bosch, who trained him to Wimbledon victory, said he hoped his former protege would “use the strength with which he survived the hardest of matches, in order to master what he now faces.” But the 85-year-old said he thought he “could not bear the idea” of visiting him in prison.
The German tennis federation, DTB, said it will “stand by” the three-times Wimbledon champion. “We respect and regret the judgment and wish him all the best for the coming time,” Dietloff von Arnim, its president, said. “We will stand by his side.”
His estranged wife, Lilly Becker, told the German channel RTL she was surprised by what she called the severity of the judgment – he had received just a suspended sentence in Germany in 2002 for tax evasion.
“After all, he didn’t kill anybody,” she said. She added that it was important for the world to know that she, his children and his first wife, Barbara, as well as his current girlfriend, Liliana, “all stand behind Boris”.
His mother, 86-year-old Elvira Pisch, said she was upset and surprised. “After all,” she said, “he is a decent boy.”
Anna Ermakova, his daughter from a brief but infamous sexual encounter with her waitress mother Angela in the cupboard of a London restaurant in 1999, said she was in a “state of shock”. She had written to the judge on behalf of her 12-year-old half-brother Amadeus, who she said would now be “without a father figure … during a difficult phase of his growing up”.
Roberto Blanco, the singer, and an erstwhile friend, said: “From a human point of view I’m incredibly sorry … not least because on the court he gave us all some really special moments.”
The fashion designer Harald Glööckler said: “Boris Becker was everyone’s idol. Regardless of whether you had anything to do with tennis or not, everyone was touched by him. He was once well and truly praised to the skies – and now he’s crashed from the heights.”
Oscar Otte, who reached the semi-finals of the ATP tournament in Munich on Friday, said he was saddened by Becker’s conviction “because he is the tennis legend in Germany and he made ‘tennis Germany’ what it is today thanks to his achievements”.