Boris Becker: talking the powerful language of sport
The six-time Grand Slam champion on tennis's growing popularity, sportsmen as role models and the London Olympics
Even amid the illustrious company of Olympic and World Champions, Boris Becker has a way of standing out.
He had it from the moment he stepped onto Wimbledon’s grass as a 17-year-old and powered his way to the title—a strapping, striking 6ft2 of tennis player who had the temerity to come back to London’s lawns and do it again the next year.
He would win six Grand Slams and four year-end championships by the time he was done in 1999, but still he retains that imposing demeanour and energy.
He’s been using a good bit of that energy in London of late, too. In November he and fellow members of the Laureus Academy—a catalogue of sporting superstars such as Ed Moses, Steve Redgrave, Mark Spitz, Michael Johnson, Kapil Dev and Bobby Charlton—converged on London for the first-ever Laureus Sport for Good Summit.
He was back a week or two later to cover tennis’s World Tour Finals for Sky Sports, never mind the impediment of a leg encased in a plaster cast.
And this week, he was in the capital again alongside more luminaries of the Laureus Academy, Lord Sebastian Coe, Sean Fitzpatrick, Daley Thompson and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, to announce the nominees for the 2012 Laureus World Sports Awards at Central Hall, Westminster
The Awards, often dubbed the ‘Oscars’ of sport, honour the finest sportsmen and sportswomen of the year, and form one element of the tripartite Laureus body along with the Academy—47 of sport’s most renowned champions—and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.
Since its inception in 2000, the combined force of Laureus has raised more than â‚¬40m for projects that have helped to improve the lives of more than one-and-a-half million young people, and the proceeds from the Awards event play a key part.
The list of 2011 nominees, as it has done almost every year, boasted a generous scattering of tennis players. Indeed a look back at past Award winners reveals a lot of tennis winners, too.
The 2011 Sportsman of the Year was Rafael Nadal, his second Laureus award, and Roger Federer is a four-time winner. The superlative wheelchair tennis champion Esther Vergeer, unbeaten in singles in more than eight years, has twice won the Sportsperson with a Disability award and is nominated again this year – along with Novak Djokovic, Na Li and Petra Kvitova.
With nominations coming from writers and broadcasters in almost 100 countries worldwide, why is tennis so often successful?
“Tennis is a very international sport,” says Becker. “It’s played in all continents, we have a lot of tournaments and the matches can be long and involving. And players don’t wear masks or helmets, so it’s a very, very good TV sport where you can see the player’s eyes. All these elements make tennis really popular.”
He believes, then, that tennis is growing in popularity?
“Oh yes, I think so. On the men’s side, we have a wonderful era, with Nadal and Federer and Djokovic – they really stand out. And on the women’s side, it is multi-coloured. There’s Li Na winning the French Open, and then you have the young Czech, Petra Kvitova, winning her maiden Grand Slam at Wimbledon, and then of course the golden girl, Sharapova, who makes the most money and is also a winner. So there are many different shapes and forms.”
Yet still that didn’t seem entirely to explain the success of tennis players amongst such an eclectic and wide-ranging field of competitors. In making their choices, perhaps other qualities beyond simply outstanding performance played a part?
“I think so, yes,” he nods. “Sportsmen ideally should be role models. Sport is a very powerful language with a lot of kids all around the world who watch and idolise their heroes. And it’s important what the players do on the court but it’s equally important what they do off the court.
If they have a charity, if they have opinions about different aspects of life, and can give kids a positive message, I think it’s very powerful, and that comes into play when you vote for a personality. The basis is tennis, but if he’s a decent human being, that helps too.”
Not, perhaps, a surprising reaction from one of the founding members of the Laureus Academy and its vice president.
He, like all his fellow academicians, involves himself in community sports initiatives. He set up Laureus’s first national foundation, the Sport for Good Foundation, Germany, which now oversees eight social projects that use sports such as hockey, boxing and football to engage hundreds of socially deprived 10 to 18 years olds.
In August, he dropped in on a new Laureus project getting under way in the earthquake-devastated Haiti, a boarding school that will combine education with soccer for some of the most affected children.
Many tennis fans will remember that those two former Laureus Award winners, Nadal and Federer, were behind the Hit for Haiti events at the Australian Open and Indian Well and have united on other fund-raising events for their own foundations.
Only this week, Nadal tweeted his thanks to those who had been working with him the past two days on his foundation’s projects. So Becker’s choice of the term “wonderful era” seems particularly apposite.
As tennis player of the year, Djokovic, has become a hero to thousands in Serbia and is now also mindful of the obligations that come with his new status in the sport.
Asked at the US Open if he had taken any lessons from how Federer and Nadal handled themselves in the limelight, he said: “Sure, they are great examples. I’ve always been very open to learn.
“I know that I can improve as a player, as a person, each day of my life. It’s important to always accept advice, accept suggestions. Roger and Rafa are big champions on and off the court, so they’re great examples to me for the situation I’m in now.”
Becker was too discrete to reveal whether Djokovic would receive his vote for this year’s Laureus Award, and was fittingly generous about the rivals in the Sportsman category.
“It’s a strong field: Vettel is strong, still the youngest two-time winner; Nowitzki’s performance, he rose to the occasion always in the last few minutes, he stands out. As long as [Bolt] runs he’s outstanding, but it wasn’t an Olympic year and I think a gold medal is always more important than a world championship in his sport. But who can argue against Messi? Nobody, but for a team player, it’s difficult to stand out in an individual sport.”
As for 2012’s Olympic gold, Becker was even more reluctant to make a call for the men’s gold medal, though he threw a couple of women’s names into the ring.
“Well it’s on grass, so you would think Petra Kvitova is strong, but I wouldn’t rule out Serena Williams – she’s very good on grass.”
One thing’s certain. Becker will be on the spot when both titles are decided, adding his enthusiasm for tennis and Laureus at every opportunity – when he’s not watching his beloved Bayern Munich, that is.
The 2012 Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony will be held at Central Hall, Westminster on 6 February. You can read about the full list of nominees here.