Boris Becker: ‘Prison life is very dangerous... it’s do or die, literally’

Becker: ‘Because I am a human being, I’m not just an image of a product or a name. There is an actual person behind the face’ - Lena Giovanazzi
Becker: ‘Because I am a human being, I’m not just an image of a product or a name. There is an actual person behind the face’ - Lena Giovanazzi

To listen to extra audio clips from this interview, click or tap on the links throughout the piece.

If he wanted to, and he probably doesn’t, Boris Becker could tell the story of his life purely through the nicknames he’s been given. ‘Boom Boom’ (improved by the German translation ‘Bum Bum’) came from his thunderous serve; ‘Der Bomber’ and ‘Baron von Slam’, meanwhile, reflected his athleticism at the net – both of which helped him shock the sporting world by winning the Wimbledon men’s singles title at just 17 years old.

‘The Lion of Leimen’, ‘the German god of light’ and ‘the Rembrandt of tennis’ were applied when he made the newspapers for all the right reasons, usually after one of his six grand slams. ‘Bonking Boris’, ‘Broom Cupboard Boris’ and ‘Boris Debtor’, on the other hand, were applied when he made the newspapers for all the wrong ones, usually after one of his many, many grand logjams.

And for a while last year, Becker was known simply as prisoner A2923EV, serving at Her (and then His) Majesty’s Pleasure – initially at HMP Wandsworth, then at HMP Huntercombe in Oxfordshire – for 231 long days, after a jury in London had found him guilty of breaching bankruptcy rules. This was the worst of the nicknames.

‘I was a number [inside],’ he says, nodding slowly. ‘I wasn’t the famous tennis guy, that’s for sure…’

In a boxy double-breasted pinstripe suit and black turtleneck, Becker sits rigidly upright on a low sofa in a Berlin hotel suite, a free man, but looking only vaguely like the famous tennis guy. His hair is cropped short (now a faded blend of grey and red), his voice croaky, and his manner – for decades marked by a sometimes problematic excess of energy, whether that was on the court, in the commentary box or in the back-of-house area of a west London sushi restaurant – ever so slightly chastened.

Becker on his way to winning Wimbledon on his debut in 1985, aged just 17 - Popperfoto
Becker on his way to winning Wimbledon on his debut in 1985, aged just 17 - Popperfoto

Occasionally he will lean forward into the Dictaphone, knees towards the floor, almost as if taking communion. ‘I’m good,’ he confirms, ‘I feel recovered from my time inside.’ He was released in mid-December and deported on a private jet to Germany, having served a fraction of his two-and-a-half-year sentence, but it was enough time to see him lose more than a stone.

It is his ‘big day’. In an hour, we will travel to the other side of the River Spree for the world premiere of Boom Boom! The World vs Boris Becker, a two-part feature documentary for AppleTV+ about his spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall. It will be his first public event since his release, and while the largely German crowd will cheer and whoop, he doesn’t know that yet.

In some ways, he’s surprised to be here at all. ‘People like me, who went through so much, on a global scale, don’t make it past 50. So to still be here at 55, to be able to speak my truth with the help of a couple of people, is really important. Because I am a human being, I’m not just an image of a product or a name. There is an actual person behind the face.’

The two films are outstanding, as you might expect from Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Darkside, The Armstrong Lie and Citizen K, and John Battsek, Oscar-winning producer of Searching for Sugar Man and One Day in September. Gibney covers the whole story, from court to courtroom, interviewing his subject twice, first when he cuts a jocular, carefree figure in 2019, and then again, white-haired and noticeably more brittle, in early 2022, three days before sentencing.

‘When you’re as famous as I am for such a long time, there’s a lot of fake news, a lot of bulls—t,’ Becker says. ‘I’m not a complainer, I’m not a whiner, but sometimes you just have to make it stop.’

Numbers are less disputable, of course, such as the $50 million in career earnings that seemed to vanish since his retirement in 1999. Or that he was declared bankrupt in 2017, with debts of almost £50 million, before the law caught up with him for hiding £2.5 million worth of assets and loans to avoid paying his debtors.

‘I feel recovered from my time inside’: Becker photographed in Berlin last month - Lena Giovanazzi
‘I feel recovered from my time inside’: Becker photographed in Berlin last month - Lena Giovanazzi

With his partner, Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro, Becker arrived for sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in April 2022 wearing an All England Club tie. Two decades earlier, he’d been given a suspended sentence for tax evasion in Germany. This time, the judge cited that as an aggravating factor. ‘While I accept your humiliation as part of the proceedings, there has been no humility,’ she said.

The moment his cell door locked at HMP Wandsworth was, Becker told a German broadcaster in December, the ‘loneliest moment I’ve ever had’.

‘Not only the first day,’ he says now. ‘It’s a proper punishment. Whoever says that prison life is easy is a liar. You have to deal with your own demons, especially in the first weeks. So you have to discipline yourself, discipline your mind, and discipline your time. If you don’t, it’s a very lonely place.’

Jail time was a possibility in the 2002 case, but he never thought it would happen. ‘Boris Becker behind bars? No way!’ as he wrote in his autobiography a year later. This time, he had an idea of what it might be like – ‘I watched those movies, I thought I knew prison life a little. But after a week, I realised I knew nothing about it. It has its own rules, its own world, its own difficulties. And you think it’s safe, because you’re in prison, right? But prison life is very dangerous. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about that.’

Boris Becker - Lena Giovanazzi
Boris Becker - Lena Giovanazzi

Fortunately he told the German broadcaster far more about that: at Huntercombe, a prison for foreign nationals, he had an ‘altercation’ with a convicted murderer who threatened his life. ‘He tried to come after me, he told me all the things he’d do to me,’ Becker said. He was saved when he shouted for help and a group of around 10 prisoners came to his rescue. According to Becker, the murderer had underestimated his popularity with the black prisoners. He later begged for forgiveness and kissed Becker’s hand.

In all, a humbling experience. ‘“Humbling” is one word for it. What it is, is your reality. You don’t have time to question whether it’s “humbling” or not. It’s do or die, literally.’

Watch: Boris Becker reflects on life behind bars

There was plenty of support from the outside. He told Lilian, the 32-year-old daughter of Sâo Tomé and Príncipe’s former defence minister, that he’d understand if she left him, but she remained. ‘Thankfully I have this incredible partner. Through thick and thin she was really there all the time.’

She visited as often as possible, as did his sons, 29-year-old Noah and 23-year-old Elias, from his first marriage. But he decided Anna, his 22-year-old daughter from the infamous three-minute encounter in Nobu with Russian model Angela Ermakova, and Amadeus, his 13-year-old with his second wife, Lilly, ought to stay away. ‘A couple of famous friends’ including Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool FC manager, wanted to visit too, but security wouldn’t allow it. ‘Because you’re in a room full of “proper” criminals,’ Becker explains.

Becker and partner Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro arriving at Southwark Crown Court in April 2022 - Neil Mockford/GC Images
Becker and partner Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro arriving at Southwark Crown Court in April 2022 - Neil Mockford/GC Images

There were letters, too. ‘True. I received a lot of fan mail, daily. But not every prison warden liked the fact he had to carry another 20 letters to my cell. “You again, with your 25 letters! Who do you think you are?” Most of them were positive. Very stimulating, very supportive. The longer the letter, the slower I read, because then another hour’s gone.’

At Huntercombe, he gained a job as a personal trainer, helping the head of the gym, who happened to also teach Stoicism. ‘One of the things you must learn inside, and quickly, is the word acceptance. You have to accept your verdict, accept your time, accept where you are. The only thing you can be the master of is your mind.

‘I managed. I think my tennis life helped. I was probably a Stoic when I was playing, without knowing it.

Now, I wasn’t dealing with normal students, I was dealing with criminals: murderers, rapists, people smugglers. Not an easy bunch. So you’d better be very authentic and credible… otherwise you could be in for a whooping.’

The two parts of Boom Boom! The World vs Boris Becker are titled Triumph and Disaster, a reference to the Rudyard Kipling line – ‘If you can meet Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two imposters just the same’ – engraved above the players’ entrance to Wimbledon Centre Court.

For better or worse, Becker really has always treated those two the same, which is why Gibney and Battsek found him so compelling. It was Battsek who had the idea, after being introduced to Becker five years ago. At that time, they didn’t know where he’d spend 2022.

Battsek emailed Gibney, who is not only among the finest documentary makers on the planet, but one of the great chroniclers of hubris, having made films about Lance Armstrong, Eliot Spitzer, Elizabeth Holmes and the Enron scandal. (His next subject, he recently announced, is Elon Musk.) Helpfully, he’s also a ‘tennis freak’ – ‘John had me at “Boris”,’ Gibney says.

The result is in part a love letter to a particular era of tennis. Many of Becker’s rivals, heroes and mentees, including Björn Borg, John McEnroe and Novak Djokovic, show up as talking heads. But Becker, of course, is the star.

‘Most successful athletes are utterly boring talking about their sport,’ Gibney says, ‘but Boris is a great storyteller.’ And he has a great story to tell.

‘Four or five years ago, if you asked people about Boris Becker, even then they’d have said two things: “Nobu” and “bankrupt”,’ Battsek says. ‘That’s ridiculous. The guy won six grand slams, an Olympic gold, coached Novak Djokovic, won Wimbledon at 17 – which, by the way, is easy to roll off the tongue, but to win Wimbledon aged 17, at your first attempt? That’s unbelievable. This was a man who was deeply flawed, yes, but he hadn’t really been acknowledged for what he’d achieved.’

Boris Becker has felt like a brand, or at least public property, ever since 7 July 1985, the day he appeared on Centre Court – all tight shorts, strawberry blond mop and as instinctive as he was Teutonic – and beat the South African Kevin Curren in four sets.

‘A lot of people thought that I was born on Centre Court, which is factually not true,’ he says. The son of Karl-Heinz, an architect, and Elvira, Becker and his older sister were raised in a middle-class, Catholic household in Leimen, then West Germany. He started playing competitive tennis at the age of eight, and would train in the evenings with a young girl from the next town called Steffi Graf. They would go on to become the two greatest German players of all time.

That first title vaulted Becker into teenage superstardom. Defending it the following year was arguably even more impressive. His fame was compared with that of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Sponsors, journalists and female fans threw themselves at him. Becker gladly caught them all.

Djokovic and Becker, with agents Edoardo Artaldi and Elena Cappellaro after Djokovic won his men's final match against Andy Murray at the 2015 Australian Open - Clive Brunskill/Getty
Djokovic and Becker, with agents Edoardo Artaldi and Elena Cappellaro after Djokovic won his men's final match against Andy Murray at the 2015 Australian Open - Clive Brunskill/Getty

At the time, his mentor, the moustachioed Romanian former professional Ion Tiriac – a wonderful contributor to Gibney’s films, comparing Becker to a child who cannot resist playing with a naked flame, and, at the very least, showing us how Frank Zappa might have aged – helped him navigate those waters, but he was largely alone

‘All of a sudden you’re the boss. The CEO, CFO and COO of a company called Boris Becker Inc that makes millions of dollars a year. So as an 18-, 25- or 32-year-old tennis player and not a business man, you have to make business decisions, which is bound to lead to mistakes,’ Becker says.

Nor did becoming the world’s most famous German sit well in his homeland. The relationship was always uneasy, especially as Becker, forever his own man, refused to play along with the media image of him as a symbol of a revived fatherland.

His parents had met in a displaced persons camp in the late 1940s, and after the Berlin Wall came down, he refused to be an ambassador for Berlin’s 2000 Olympic bid, believing it was too soon for a return to nationalism. ‘I looked into the eyes of my fans, I thought I was looking at monsters,’ he once said after a victory parade in Leimen. ‘When I saw this blind, emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us a long time ago in Nuremberg.’

An editor once told him that three things are guaranteed to sell papers in Germany: Adolf Hitler, the reunification of the country, and Boris Becker. The media scrutiny was especially poisonous when he married Barbara Feltus, a black German-American model, in 1993.

‘From early on, I didn’t do things the Germans wanted me to do,’ he sighs. ‘I was political, I was outspoken, I married a black woman, I have mixed-race kids, I spoke about racism in the ’90s, when there was no such thing as Black Lives Matter. I did nude photographs with my wife, when we really showed the Germans how racist they were in the ’90s.

‘But this is who I am. This is why this country is more critical of me than any other country – because I poke the bear sometimes. I may be one of the most famous Germans in the world, but I’m probably more popular abroad than back home. But there is a reason for that, and I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

He currently has no fixed abode, having spent the past two months shuttling around Europe, but it sounds as if Germany is off the cards. ‘I am proud to be German, born and raised, but I could never live [here]. They wouldn’t give me the space, and the privacy that even Boris Becker has the right to.’

Gibney presents a theory in his films: that on court, at least, Becker was at his best when he fell behind, and knew it, creating imperilled situations purely so he could escape them. ‘He almost played a trick on himself,’ Gibney says. ‘It’s something that was hugely helpful to him as a player, but maybe not so helpful to him… later. His appetite for risk is high, allowing himself to get into a bad place and thinking, “Well I can get out of it, I always get out of it.”’

Boris Becker - Lena Giovanazzi
Boris Becker - Lena Giovanazzi

It’s what makes a moment towards the end of the second film, when Becker breaks down, announcing he has hit rock bottom, quite so powerful. The escapologist met his match.

‘Look,’ Becker says, bristling a little, ‘I think one of the qualities of Alex is that he’s an independent filmmaker. I personally wouldn’t share every opinion he has. This is a film about the life of Boris Becker, the good and the bad. Now, am I good when the going gets tough? I’m probably better than most.’

‘That’s the problem. What sets you apart, is it your serve? Your footwork? Your fitness? Or is it the ability to play under pressure? Mine was the ability to play best under pressure. That’s what he meant, I become my strongest when I’m in most difficulty. Is that by choice? No. I’d like to have an easy life, like anybody else. Is it in my DNA? Probably, otherwise I’d have done things differently. But everybody has their habits.’

Becker and Barbara divorced in 2001, two years after his retirement from tennis, and weeks after he cheated on her with Ermakova in a stairwell at Nobu. (He has repeatedly insisted it was not a broom cupboard, apparently returning to the scene of the crime three years later). At the time, Barbara, heavily pregnant with Elias, was in hospital with contractions. When Ermakova broke the news of Anna’s impending arrival, Becker denied paternity. A DNA test, not to mention Anna’s uncanny resemblance, proved otherwise.

Becker was once asked why women find him so attractive. ‘No idea,’ he replied. ‘I’m not especially rich, I’m not especially pretty, I’m no Adonis and my manhood isn’t over-enormous.’ Sex, he added, ‘is totally overvalued in our society… I was totally monogamous during my seven-year marriage. But I also think we men are not created to be monogamous for our whole lives.’

He’s certainly proof of that. Seven years after his divorce from Barbara, he and Sharlely ‘Lilly’ Kerssenberg, a Dutch model, announced their engagement live on a German game show. ‘No, not again?’ the presenter exclaimed. (Becker had barely had time to wash after a brief engagement to the 25-year-old daughter of his former manager.)

Becker and Lilian at the screening of 'Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker' in Berlin - Reuters
Becker and Lilian at the screening of 'Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker' in Berlin - Reuters

He and Lilly married in 2009 and swiftly had Amadeus, moving into a £22,000-a-month rented mansion in Wimbledon, in addition to the 12-bedroom villa he owned in Mallorca. They separated in 2018, but are still not legally divorced, which must allow his accountant to sleep a little easier.

To everybody’s credit, the kids are more than all right. Noah, a charismatic artist who arrives with Lilian at the premiere later, lives in Berlin. Elias studies film at NYU. Anna has just finished a BA in modern art and is spending her ‘gap moment’ doing the German version of Strictly Come Dancing. And Amadeus is at school in London. Becker is unable to take the risk of visiting Britain until his licence runs out in October 2024.

The logistics of keeping up with what he calls his ‘patchwork family’ haven’t always been easy. Today he is on great terms with Barbara, and good terms with Angela. And Lilly… well, on the morning we meet, the papers are full of Lilly calling him ‘a devil’ who thinks ‘the world revolves around him’. So let’s call Lilly a work in progress.

‘It takes intelligent parents to find a way. Barbara is very intelligent. We have two wonderful sons who deserve the best of us. That’s the secret to our patchwork relationship,’ Becker says. ‘I have a similar relationship with the mother of my daughter. She’s done an unbelievable job educating her and I’ve supported her every step of the way. She’s now a strong, independent young woman.

‘So I hope with Sharlely we are able to reach the same point, but we are not there yet. We have good moments and bad.’

This weekend, I wager, must represent a bad one. ‘Well, she has her opinions, which are not always correct or legally right. I’ll leave it like that.’

We are still no closer to determining exactly how Boris Becker ended up in prison, but suffice to say that when his advocate told a registrar in 2017 ‘he is not a sophisticated individual when it comes to finances’, it was a good example of legal understatement. Divorce, child support payments, the €6.5 million settlement over his German tax case, questionable business ventures, a generous and sybaritic lifestyle… it all added up, or rather, subtracted down.

Debts mounted, payments were missed. He took an emergency loan from the British billionaire John Caldwell, then failed to pay it back within three months. A one-time professional poker player, he is fond of the old saying, ‘No shame in folding.’ In 2017 the amazement of the public in Britain – where he was adored as a BBC pundit and, until the mid-noughties, our pre-eminent hyper-horny, financially haywire, wild-haired Boris – Becker had to declare bankruptcy.

With his eldest sons Noah (left) and Elias at a sports awards ceremony in Berlin, 2020 - Andreas Rentz
With his eldest sons Noah (left) and Elias at a sports awards ceremony in Berlin, 2020 - Andreas Rentz

‘In hindsight you’re always smarter,’ Becker says today, before electing to interview himself for a few minutes. ‘Did I make mistakes? Lots of them. Was I always advised in the most professional way? Probably not. Did I always surround myself with the right people? No. But was there ever a book written about how you’re meant to live your life if you win Wimbledon at 17 and make your first million? No, there is no handbook. This was all a problem for me, but I’ve done some good things, and I’ve done some bad things, this is just how life goes.’

He remains a practising Catholic, and attended Bible study every Friday in prison. Would he consider himself a good man? ‘I think so, yeah. I don’t intentionally want to harm anybody, I think that was always clear. Was I not careful enough? Was I not thorough enough? Did anybody tell me I should check my lawyers or manager? Nobody told me that. Now, I’m different. Now, if you tell me something, I won’t automatically believe you.’ At this he laughs, for the first time.

He is trying to move on, trying not to feel bitter, even if he does keep returning to the idea he was badly advised, and does tweet about Nadim Zahawi’s tax affairs, and did recently imply he’d have been treated differently if he was called ‘Peter Smith’, or his jurors were older.

‘I mentioned earlier the word “acceptance”, even if you thought your punishment was a bit harsh – and I thought my punishment was a bit harsh – you have to accept it immediately,’ he says. ‘There’s no use in looking back. And it can prepare you for the future, so the quicker you accept it, the better your life will be.’

Sponsors have stuck by him, and the commentary work for Eurosport has already restarted (so have discussions with the BBC, he says). But the inner Del Boy is alive. He has ‘plans’, and while he won’t say what, in 2021 Lilian registered a company called BFB Enterprises, which happen to be her partner’s initials.

‘I’m one of many who have to work for a living, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m planning to re-establish brand Boris Becker, because that ultimately pays the bills.’

The film, he says, is ‘very important’ to him. Understandably so – it does a better job of celebrating, and explaining, Becker than he’s ever managed alone. ‘Once this is done, tomorrow I’ll begin the first day of the rest of my life.’

‘I think I’m a little bit more mature, I’ve weathered many storms. And hopefully I became a little bit smarter, which will reflect in my choices that I’ll make professionally and privately. I’m looking at a bright future.’

It’s not clear whether Becker is telling me that, or himself. But Bounceback Boris has always enjoyed resurrection.

‘I am asking for a real last chance for Mr Becker to come good,’ his advocate pleaded in 2017. ‘I’ve changed, there is a new chapter starting,’ Becker told an interviewer, in 2009. ‘I’m a different man now,’ he told another, in 2005. ‘Here I am. At the end and the beginning at the same time. Back in the qualifying rounds […] And the tournament is called life,’ he wrote in his autobiography, in 2003.

The tournament of life, I repeat. How’s that going?

‘We are in the middle of it,’ he says, perkily. ‘My greatest achievement, I think, is that after all the trials and tribulations and hardships, I’m still alive and well. I’m not a drug addict, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m not insane by now. I’m still here to tell you my story.’

A firm nod. ‘I’ll continue to play the tournament of life for as long as I live. The ending is still very open.’

Boom Boom! The World vs Boris Becker is on Apple TV+ from 7 April