When tennis champion Boris Becker entered the room for a press conference in Berlin before the world premiere of the documentary about his storied career and troubled personal life, camera shutters clicked furiously and flashes flashed. He is, after all, one of Germany’s most famous native sons and a widely loved sports legend, despite a conviction for a bankruptcy-related fraud that landed him behind bars in Britain for eight months.
“I’m 55 years old and I’m very proud of the things that I’ve done. But I’ve made mistakes,” Becker told the assembled media at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday. “I’ve paid a heavy price for some of the things I did in my past. Today I’m a bit better for it. Hopefully a bit smarter. Maybe a bit more humble.”
The documentary series Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker, directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney, will debut on Apple TV+ later in the year. It follows Becker’s astonishing rise, when at 17 he became the youngest men’s singles champion in Wimbledon history in 1985. Despite his youth, even at that age Becker could bash serves that handcuffed his opponents, especially on the rapid surface of grass.
“He would dive, he would jump [for the ball]. I mean, he would lay it all out on the court,” Gibney, a major tennis fan, tells Deadline. “Big and explosive. He was impressive and he burst on the scene so young.”
As an unseeded player, he took down a heavily favored Kevin Curren in that ’85 Wimbledon final. Then, at 18, Becker defended his title, defeating the Terminator-like Ivan Lendl in straight sets. He arrived on the tennis scene with the charisma to match his power game. Says Gibney, “He’s a big, larger-than-life personality.”
At the beginning of his career, Becker was coached by the wily Romanian former pro, Ion Tiriac, and former pro Günther Bosch. That worked like a charm for a while and Becker kept accruing titles, although his coaches struggled to get him to follow their advice about matters on the court and off. Tiriac arranged endorsement deals for Becker and recommended he live in the tax haven of Monaco. That may have been a wise idea, but Becker later got into legal trouble after German authorities said he actually continued to live in Germany despite maintaining the appearance of Monaco residency. It was a foreshadowing of more trouble to come.
For the two-part series Gibney talked with Tiriac, Bosch and a who’s who of tennis greats including Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic, Mats Wilander, Nick Bollettieri (the famed coach who died last year), Brad Gilbert and many others.
“For a tennis freak,” Gibney says of himself, “that was pretty good.”
Part of what intrigues Gibney about his subject is Becker’s range of skills that go well beyond being able to smack a tennis ball.
“He’s a great tennis player, but he’s also a good storyteller,” the director notes. “So that’s what got me in.”
Many athletes, active or former, spew platitudes about their exploits, but Becker displays a capacity to probe his own psychology.
“He said in the press conference that the mental discipline of his tennis served him well later on. I would say also that some of the things that made him great as a tennis player may not have been the best attributes to navigate real life, like appetite for great risk,” Gibney observes. “[In episode 1] he talked about how he would sometimes get himself down by a set or two and that would goose him in terms of the adrenaline. But that’s not also a very good life lesson — don’t put yourself in the hole.”
As much as the series constitutes a profile of a person, it’s also an exploration of a particular sport – one, not unlike boxing or wrestling, where players compete head-to-head with their opponents, and must find the strength and strategy to vanquish them. It’s not like golf, for instance, where you really play against yourself. To capture the aspect of tennis as dual, Gibney used a motif from Hollywood films like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, casting the game’s greats as characters in a Western.
“That’s why we had so much fun with the Morricone score,” Gibney says, “because it was like gunslingers. It was High Noon.”
Becker, McEnroe, and Michael Stich all provide insight into the contest of wills between players when each possesses a ferocious drive to win. And while tennis in a much earlier era maintained an aura of gentility, Becker, McEnroe and others admit they were not above some trash-talking and even dirty pool (to mix sport metaphors).
“That’s definitely one of the things we wanted to rip apart in this series,” Gibney acknowledges. “So, like that match with McEnroe [and a young Becker], where at the first changeover [Mac] says, ‘I’m gonna fuck you up, you motherfucker.’ And the coughing match. Hilarious.”
The coughing match was where a fed-up McEnroe mimicked Becker’s propensity to clear his throat at inopportune moments, possibly to distract his opponents. Mac accused Becker of having suffered from the same cold for four years.
“Michael Stich, even to this day, is still holding the grudge,” Gibney notes, over what Stich considers some devious gamesmanship Becker indulged in when they squared off for an important title.
Episode 1, which mostly focuses on Becker’s triumphs, screened at the Berlinale. Gibney continues to work on episode 2, which will get into Boris Becker’s fall, a tale of almost Shakespearean dimensions. Bad investments, bad decisions led to him declare bankruptcy in 2017 in the U.K., where he was living. That was embarrassing enough, but then he was convicted of hiding assets and loans from the court that he was required to acknowledge. One of the interviews Gibney did with Becker took place two days before his sentencing.
“He did have a reckoning that, if you’re not careful, if you’re not watching out, if you don’t — as he said — ‘take care of your own shit,’ you can end up in a very bad place,” Gibney says. “At the press conference and also hanging out with him a little bit, you have a sense that he’s undergone kind of, yeah, reckoning is probably the best way of putting it.”