RICHARD KAY: Boris Becker and a fall like no other
Boris Becker and a fall like no other: An insatiable appetite for women, homes, cars and luxury living. Now, disastrous business blunders and a fatal arrogance have led to the Wimbledon star beginning a two and a half year jail term, writes RICHARD KAY
Just how he regards the reality of his 54 years, no one can be sure. Perhaps a mixture of satisfaction – three Wimbledon titles are testament to that – tinged with regret and guilt.
But in what proportions?
For the rest of us, memories of the precocious teenager Boris Becker, whose thundering serves and volleys saw him become the youngest and first unseeded player to be men’s singles champion, have long since faded.
In their place, one lurid episode dominates – a sexual encounter in the broom cupboard of a Mayfair restaurant with a Russian model that produced a child, a moment cast for ever by Becker as ‘the most expensive five seconds of my life’.
That was the beginning of his troubles, as a string of messy setbacks – from marital failures to financial disaster – has framed his post-tennis life.
Boris Becker pictured hugging his girlfriend Lillian De Carvalho on his last few days of freedom before he heads to court
The latest and surely most tragic twist is the one that saw an athlete once celebrated as the most popular player on the planet reduced to the dock of Southwark Crown Court, his reputation in the gutter.
Even yesterday, as a judge decided his future following his conviction for concealing millions of pounds, Becker continued to wear the unrepentant air of bruised innocence, a man to whom things just happened.
Jailing Becker for two and a half years, Judge Deborah Taylor said he had shown no remorse or acceptance of guilt, adding: ‘While I accept your humiliation as part of the proceedings, there has been no humility.’
Perhaps he simply felt impregnable.
On the witness stand, he presented himself as someone whose job was ‘to train and play well’ and that he had advisers who took care of ‘pretty much everything’.
He is hardly the first sportsman whose playing achievements have been overshadowed by bad guidance, but was he really a victim of misfortune? Or the architect of his own downfall?
And what a fall it has been, every bit as extraordinary as his ascent to the top of world tennis as a 17-year old.
The jury who convicted him of four charges under the Insolvency Act for failing to disclose his assets heard a story of a man who claimed not to know the whereabouts of some of his most prized trophies, who took a high-interest loan from one of Britain’s richest tycoons and tried to avoid bankruptcy by claiming to have diplomatic immunity. He was cleared of a further 20 charges.
The Boris Becker story is many things: greed certainly, arrogance probably, incompetence, naivety and plain bad luck. But it’s mostly the story of a self-regarding man, money and an insatiable love for women.
He has had two wives and several partners and is the father of four children – one of whom, Anna, 22, was the result of that notorious fling in the broom cupboard of the restaurant Nobu.
This week, ahead of yesterday’s hearing, he was characteristically to be found in the company of women: first with his estranged second wife Lilly, mother of his youngest son; and later with Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro, a glamorous political risk analyst, with whom he was pictured strolling around fashionable Notting Hill.
Portly, grey-haired and smoking, he barely resembled the strawberry-blond wunderkind who burst into Wimbledon hearts in the summer of 1985 when he won the first of his three titles.
Walking stiffly thanks to damage to his knees and ankles (he was given permission to sit during his time in the witness box), the legacy of hurling his 6ft 3ins frame around the court, Becker appeared pre-occupied and forlorn.
So how has Boom-Boom Boris, the nickname he earned on court and who was once estimated to have been worth £100 million, got into such a mess?
For all the personal crises that have beset him, it is surely the most puzzling question of all.
Champion at 17: Boris Becker of Germany pictured with the Wimbledon trophy in 1985
His seemingly unquenchable thirst for the high life – multiple homes, expensive cars and a passion for works of art (an Andy Warhol was a rumoured prized possession) – was partly to blame. His lack of business acumen and scandalous private life did not help.
As his friend and fellow tennis player Pat Cash observed: ‘Boris has always felt a need to maintain an image linked with prosperity.’
Certainly he was brought low by his attempt to hang on to his house in Majorca, a finca he bought along with a 65-acre estate in 1995 and on which he lavished more money by building a pool house and tennis courts, only to see it seized – twice – by Spanish authorities for allegedly failing to settle bills for construction work. He was also sued by his gardener, who claimed he was owed £246,000 in unpaid salary.
As he spiralled into debt, Becker borrowed £1.2 million from billionaire John Caudwell, the Phones 4U magnate, with a crippling interest rate of 25 per cent he could not afford. It was secured on the Majorca property.
He was introduced to Caudwell – a friend of the Duchess of York – by Nathalie Dauriac-Stoebe, a French-born wine heiress who at that time ran Caudwell’s private wealth management company. The businessman’s spokesman recalled: ‘Nathalie said: “If you don’t give him a loan then there is a strong chance he could go to jail in Spain”.’
Becker admitted in court he only ever skim-read contracts, saying: ‘I don’t have the patience.’ So it was unclear if he understood the implications of the loan.
But while his jet-set lifestyle continued – for years, he rented a £25,000-a-month house in Wimbledon, smoked Cuban cigars and adored fine wines and rare malt whisky – his income had nosedived.
Nobu love child: Angela Ermakova with her daughter Anna Ermakova, who was the result of that notorious fling in the broom cupboard of the restaurant Nobu
Becker, who had established himself as a popular if eccentric BBC commentator, appeared unconcerned about his growing financial crisis.
Caudwell, meanwhile, impatient at the outstanding loan, transferred the debt to the private bank Arbuthnot Latham.
The bank maintained that under Spanish property law, it had to maintain the interest rate. So when Becker failed to sell the estate, the bank sought his bankruptcy. Enter the Central African Republic. In a bizarre attempt to avoid the bankruptcy proceedings, Becker claimed the impoverished CAR had appointed him ‘sport and cultural attaché to the European Union’ in April 2018.
But the republic’s foreign minister described the six-time grand slam champion’s diplomatic passport as fake and a humiliated Becker dropped the defence.
He described the news of his bankruptcy as ‘very embarrassing’ because when it broke he was commentating at Wimbledon and ‘everyone knew (about) it’.
He said the period was also ‘very stressful’ with his second wife as they were ‘living in separate quarters of the house’, close to the All England Club.
He was covering a quarter-final match when one of his sons called saying ‘my wife was breaking down the house, the furniture, the windows’. Police were called for what it described as a ‘domestic incident’. There were no arrests but the marriage never recovered. As the bankruptcy case ground on, the judge hearing it commented: ‘One has the impression of a man with his head in the sand.’ A biographer noted sardonically: ‘Boris is better at tennis than business.’
Wife No 1: Barbara Feltus, who Boris met at Harry’s New York bar in Munich in 1991. Barbara is the daughter of a German mother and American father who went to Europe with the US medical corps and stayed on to become a photographer
But this year the case took an abrupt turn with Becker accused in court of being misleading and providing an inaccurate account of his assets. ‘Bankrupts who play the system with bad faith should be punished, and that is what the prosecution say that Mr Becker did here,’ the court was told.
He was charged with 24 counts of hiding assets from the Insolvency Service. These included concealing £1 million from the sale of a car dealership in his native Germany along with two Wimbledon trophies. The court was told he also failed to disclose two properties in Germany, a luxury flat in Chelsea, along with a loan debt of £700,000 and 75,000 shares in an IT company. Asked about his missing tennis trophies, Becker said he did not know where they were. He recalled giving the Presidents Cup, which he received alongside the Wimbledon trophy for his 1986 singles victory, to his mother Elvira, 87, as a gift ‘many years ago’.
This the jury accepted, clearing him of all charges relating to the Wimbledon trophies, as well as those he received for winning the Australian Open in 1991 and 1996 and his 1992 Olympic gold medal.
Perhaps because he is from small-town Germany and found fame and incredible wealth at such a young age, Becker was so careless with both possessions and money.
Born in Leimen, near Heidelberg, in 1967 to an architect father and Czech immigrant mother, he discovered tennis at an early age and was a junior team member at ten before turning professional at 16.
A year later he took Wimbledon by storm, beating veteran Kevin Curren in the final. At 17 years 228 days, he was the youngest men’s singles champion and became a household name. At the height of his celebrity a survey found he was more recognisable to Germans than their chancellor. The following year he defended his title by beating then world No 1 Ivan Lendl.
In 1991 at Harry’s New York bar in Munich, he met actress and model Barbara Feltus, daughter of a German mother and American father who went to Europe with the US medical corps and stayed on to become a photographer.
Eighteen months after their meeting, Becker dropped a diamond ring in her whisky sour and proposed to the strains of Gershwin’s Summertime.
Suddenly Becker was transformed from mere sporting idol to a figure of national stature, poster boy for the new multi-ethnic Germany. He and Barbara posed naked for a magazine shoot, photographed by his father-in-law.
His tennis, however, was suffering. Other relationships soured too; after parting from his first coach Gunther Bosch, the two barely exchanged a word for 35 years. When they met at tournaments where both were working in TV, they would pass each other in silence.
Wife No 2: Boris married Dutch beauty Lilly Kerssenberg in Switzerland in 2009, a ceremony publicised with a spread in Hello! magazine – whose famous curse struck nine years later. The marriage’s failure led, inevitably, to another costly settlement
After losing to Pete Sampras in the 1997 Wimbledon quarter-finals, he vowed never to play again. But two years later he was back for one last hurrah in the 1999 championships. And it was after crashing out to Pat Rafter in the fourth round that year that Becker found himself in Nobu staring into the limpid eyes of Angela Ermakova.
The sex was as short-lived as it was perfunctory. ‘Five minutes of small talk, then into the nearest suitable corner for our business,’ is how he dispassionately recalled it.
Afterwards, he thought no more of it. Until the following year when he received a fax saying the ‘result’ of their coupling was now in its eighth month. It wasn’t until a DNA test that he accepted paternity. His marriage to Barbara – with whom he had Noah, now 28, and Elias, 22 – did not survive. She was pregnant with Elias at the time of the fling.
He later rather callously wrote of his then wife: ‘She couldn’t and wouldn’t understand that she suddenly wasn’t in my first priorities.’
The scorn heaped on ‘Bonking Boris’, as he was dubbed by tabloid headlines, did not let up. Instead of being remembered as one of the greatest players of the modern era, he became a figure of ridicule.
The break-up of his marriage to Barbara was the start of Becker’s financial problems. It reportedly cost him £11 million, plus the £3 million family home in Miami and £19,000 a month in maintenance payments for their two sons.
Having dabbled in property and after buying three Mercedes-Benz dealerships in his 20s, he became a full-time businessman.
But he was hammered by poor judgment and mishap after mishap – he is said to have lost a fortune after investing £10 million in the Nigerian oil and gas industry.
Money troubles stalked him everywhere. He was fined for tax evasion in Germany after secretly living in Munich while claiming he was permanently resident in Monaco.
In the years afterwards, he was linked to a dizzying number of projects, using his name to open a tennis academy in China, endorse Puma footwear in India, promote mobile phones in Slovenia, sell wine in Chile and plug tennis rackets and sportswear in Europe.
He has also modelled for Ralph Lauren, fronted his own TV show, secured a lucrative sponsorship deal with PokerStars.com and worked as a £20,000-a-time after-dinner speaker.
But whatever he was earning, it was never enough.
Arial shot of the property Boris Becker’s mansion ‘Son Coll’, in Mallorca, Spain
Women continued to come and go: there was a brief engagement to Alessandra Meyer-Wolden, daughter of his former manager, until she dumped him by text; and he was linked to a string of models and TV starlets.
Then came Dutch beauty Lilly Kerssenberg whom he married in Switzerland in 2009, a ceremony publicised with a spread in Hello! magazine – whose famous curse struck nine years later. The marriage’s failure led, inevitably, to another costly settlement.
For years, Becker has made his home in London. After reinventing himself as a commentator, he is in demand for his perceptive if quirky observations of the modern game.
The huge rented house in Wimbledon has gone and these days he lives in a three-bedroom apartment overlooking the Thames in Battersea. It’s not exactly a come-down: apart from stunning views across the London skyline, he has the use of a gym, sauna, steam room and rooftop tennis court.
Then there is the companionship of the sassy Lilian, who is said to speak five languages. She was with him every day of his trial and blew him a farewell kiss as Judge Taylor deprived him of his liberty.
But then women have always adored him. As the good life finally ended for Boris Becker yesterday, he will have plenty of time to reflect on that.
Additional reporting: Rob Hyde in Germany
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