BORIS BECKER

BORIS BECKER

Boris Becker speaks exclusively to GiveMeSport about tennis and business

Whilst Boris is back in the spotlight once again as coach of Novak Djokovic, the six-time grand Slam champion has been busy transferring his on-court successes into global brand off it.

Mention the name Boris Becker to your average man on the street, and the first thought that comes to mind is a teenager diving around Wimbledon winning tennis matches.

That's how Becker made his name, and as a fresh-faced 17-year-old he lifted one of the game's greatest prizes on centre court in London. Much has changed since in the life of the 47-year-old from Leimen, Germany.

He's made the place where he won two more titles - and lost four finals - his home, now residing in a beautiful part of the English capital with wife Lilly and the youngest of his four children.

But rather than enjoying the quiet life post-career, Becker has been busy since retiring from the game that made him an icon around the world.

"It's important for athletes to take time out after a long career. I was a professional for many years, and you don't just need to recharge the batteries; you need to look back at what you've done, be proud of it, celebrate it and have fun," he tells GiveMeSport in a meeting at his office in Berkley Square.

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"But you also need to look to the future. In my case I was only in my mid-30s, so I was old in sports but very young in any new business I was going to get involved in.

"You have to be smart, talk to the right people and work out what you really want to do. It's quite a big decision for anyone and you can't just jump into it immediately, so I took a couple of years off."

Nobody could begrudge a professional tennis player some time off at the end of their career, with the sport acknowledged as one of the toughest when it comes to constantly travelling around the world.

BRAND BECKER

Becker was wise to get away from it all, enjoy a holiday or two and play some golf, because his time is once again at a premium.

His appointment as coach to Novak Djokovic is just the tip of the iceberg, and it soon becomes apparent why the six-time Grand Slam champion has his own private office in one of the most prestigious areas of the capital.

'Brand Becker' isn't just a catchy slogan, but the reality of how an athlete has managed to transform himself into a legitimate businessman and entrepreneur.

I was in my early 20s and had enjoyed a lot of success. I knew that I had an incredible following growing all around the world, and it wasn't just because of a good serve and volley.

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"When you're a player, you're very much into the game. You're not so aware of the effects you winning and becoming a personality and having opinions has on the possibility of becoming a brand.

"You're supposed to have an agent or manager who explains it to you, because this new fame or position you have is able to get you a few more commercial contracts than before, which happened for me.

"But it's only really after my career that I thought what I've done is pretty good, and that means so many doors are open. When you're in the middle of winning Wimbledon, you don't think about it."

Becker won £130,000 for that first Grand Slam victory in 1985 - not a small amount, but nothing compared to the riches currently available. Andy Murray and Marion Bartoli, winners of the singles titles at Wimbledon in 2013, pocketed £1.6 million each for their efforts.

Lucrative sponsorship deals naturally follow, and Becker was among the first to take advantage of the power of winning. He capitalised on his success with clothing and racquet deals on the court, as well as others off it.

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TAKING ADVANTAGE

Despite not making as much as the modern-day superstars, Becker classes himself as one of the fortunate ones, capitalising on the foundations laid by others before him.

"We've actually been lucky that in our generation, there were commercial rewards. Once you win a Grand Slam, or many Grand Slams, there are endorsement deals available. Sometimes they're linked to sport, sometimes they aren't," he reflects.

"It started in professional tennis with the likes of Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors - they put the groundwork in - and my era benefited. John McEnroe before me, he was the first to really profit from tennis becoming popular around the world. It became very rich just in time for me.

"I found myself in the middle of off-court commercial things, press conferences, interviews - that's very much comparable to the generation now who have multiple commitments."

Becker certainly knows about multiple commitments, and has been able to transfer skills that were honed on the tennis court into business. From the outside looking in, he's done it with ease. Like anything successful though, it's taken time and effort.

"My sport is very goal driven. You enter a tournament because you want to win it. A few people want to get past the first round, but they're never going to win it all. That mentality transfers across to business if you want success.

"You also have to think big. You put your international hat on and think what works in Germany might not work in China.

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"The same rules apply in business and tennis - not every tournament is the same, and it comes down to people."

"I think I can deal very well with people from all walks of life. Because of that, I don't think I'm judgmental about where people come from, and as long as we have the same mind and mentality, I'm confident we'll find a solution.

"Another thing that was vital in my first career, a thing they called a German trait, was discipline and hard-work. It doesn't matter what sport you play, the successful ones share this quality. That also comes with the territory in business."

After making his money on and off the court, Becker had options available to him when he decided to move into business. Yet it was investments made during his career that laid the foundations for life after tennis, with a suggestion from his father proving to be a particularly enjoyable venture.

Every young man loves cars, and I was able to make a passion of mine a business of mine. Obviously, when you're in your mid-20s and you've made a bit of money, you have smart investors telling you to invest in A, B or C.

"Thankfully I had my father, who told me that it might be possible to buy car dealerships with the real estate on it as well. The thinking was that you never know what can happen in 10 or 15 years, but this would always be mine. It was a wise decision."

MERCEDES-BENZ CONNECTION

Mercedes, of course, was the car of choice for Becker, and the automobile giant wasn't slow to create a connection with one of their nation's most recognisable athletes in a time of change for Germany.

His initial investment in three dealerships was a risk, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification of the country, business boomed in a way few could have imagined.

Becker was flying the flag for a new Germany around the world, and it's no surprise that Mercedes took the chance to partner up with him.

"Things fall into place and when you're becoming a brand, not just a tennis or ex-tennis player, major international corporations want to partner with you," he acknowledges.

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"Mercedes was one of a few companies that did that, and have been with me for a long time. But it starts with performance, which is easy to forget. If you don't have the wins or high ranking, then nobody's going to ask you for anything."

"Once you have that, you have to build on it and become your own man, become responsible, become opinionated - you can't please everybody, but a personality shouldn't because otherwise nobody will value what you're saying."

There is little doubt that people value Becker's opinion, particularly in the United Kingdom. It's often suggested he's the most liked German on these shores, and whilst the remark brings a wry smile, it would be hard to argue against it.

People appear to connect with Becker in a way they can with few others, and it would be fair to suggest that high-profile off-court incidents have made the man appear more real in comparison to other sports stars who feel distant from the common man.

Both the BBC and Sky Sports called upon his services during major tournaments, and his style of on-screen punditry and behind-the-camera commentary has won him an army of additional fans post-career.

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OTHER PASSIONS

Falling into media work didn't happen by accident though, with Becker becoming aware of the possibilities during his playing days. Having spent so long in the public eye, TV work was another opportunity he was comfortable with.

"I was so involved on the other side with regards to how media works. I've been in-front of the red light thousands of times, and the feeling of giving an interview or talking live is something I'm not scared of," he muses.

"It's second nature to me, and going into tennis commentary or television work - or even sports television work - made sense.

"I see the world bigger than just one country and I watch sports all over the world. I then compare how they all perform, and because of that I feel like I can give the viewer a broader picture. It places me well to talk about it, I think."

Whilst it's a variety of sports that interest Becker, there is no denying his passion for one in particular that isn't tennis - football.

As a child growing up, the youngster spent plenty of time kicking a ball around a pitch rather than hitting one on a court, and his love for the game would eventually lead to a position on the Bayern Munich board.

His relationship with football could have been more serious at an earlier stage had he decided to go in that direction, but it was a motivation to succeed alone that swayed him to tennis.

"A lot of the German football talents came from my region, and then they would go to Stuttgart and Frankfurt. If they were good enough, they'd then go to Bayern Munich.

I was playing in a couple of clubs until I was 16, and I feel - I can't prove it - but I feel I was at least good enough to play in the Bundesliga.


"It wasn't a tough decision to choose tennis over football though, because the beauty of the game is also the problem - you depend on multiple people. I always felt I wanted to be responsible for my actions, and if I'm good I want to win."

His decade on the Munich board came to an end when he left Germany to live abroad, and Becker has previously resided in America and Switzerland before making England his home.

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A passion for property, another area of business interest, could explain why he's managed to settle so well in different places, and it's a love that stems from his upbringing alongside an architect father.

As well as his car dealerships, the young tennis player began to invest in the sector as a hobby rather than profession, admitting he didn't know enough about the industry to get heavily involved.

It's not always been success though, most notably with the failing of the 'Boris Becker Business Tower' in Dubai. Having given his name to the project, the property market collapse in 2008 saw the development stall.

In a BBC interview in 2012, he reflected with regret on the venture, and a couple of years later he offers a cautionary tale on his involvement in property in general.

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"I was always into architecture as a youngster, and I was always into interior design and real estate as such."

"A hobby is one thing, but making it professional is another and I think you need to learn your craft," he explains.

"That means potentially going to study and learning the business. I didn't do that but I think I have a good eye. My sister made the right choice for this with university, so she's a proper interior designer. It runs in our family and we like doing it."

Any good businessman endures both hits and misses, but the latter is something Becker simply finds hard to swallow because of his background in sport.

TEAM DJOKOVIC

And, whilst we're focusing on his interests away from the court, conversation continues to come back to the game where he made his name. It's no surprise, given his return to the big stage as a member of Novak Djokovic's coaching staff.

The announcement in December 2013 came as something of a shock, given that the Serb already had six Grand Slam titles to his name and was ranked second in the world.

But, as Becker notes, it's a mark of both Djokovic and the other top players that they are turning to some former greats to try and improve their performance.

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"It's about pure knowledge. If there is one thing Novak can ring me up about at 3am in the morning to talk about, it's tennis. In my sleep, I can tell you things that you've never heard about," enthuses Becker, clearly enjoying his role.

"In a way, I'm surprised it's taken some of the top players so long to ask a Stefan Edberg, to ask a Goran Ivanisevic or to ask a Boris Becker, because guess what, we've been there and done it."

"It's not something we have to go and study or read about, we actually played on the same courts and understand better than most other coaches the difference and what it takes at the highest level.

"It speaks volumes for the top players today that they've already won a lot, but they are great students of the game and they want to win more. And for them to win more, they have to associate themselves with people who have won more. It's just common sense."

THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION

When it comes to coaching the best players in the world, it's not the basics of a forehand or backhand that are in question.

There are always things to be worked on though, and weaknesses don't slip past the eye of a man who won Olympic gold in 1992 and three of the four majors at least once.

"You don't have to go back to the drawing board because they already know the basics. They obviously have weaknesses - I'm not going to go into that - but things that I know, that Edberg knows and that Ivan Lendl knew when he was with Murray," he confesses.

"It's a gutsy move by the players to admit that, otherwise they would never ask for help. They have weaknesses, and they ask the former players just mentioned to help them improve. It speaks for the professionalism of the players that they are not complacent and are not happy with winning six, 10, 12 Grand Slams and so on.

Look at Roger Federer - he's won 17 Grand Slams and he's not happy with that, so hires Edberg and is playing his best tennis for a couple of years. It just goes to show this drive that the top players have.

Pressed for more on his role with one of the world's best players, Becker relaxes back in his chair and considers what information to divulge. It's a rare moment to pause and think during a whirlwind 45 minutes since his arrival.

But he's quickly back into his stride, and stressing the point that he's not the only man behind Djokovic. Yes, he's been brought in to try and get a little more out of the player, but he's not in charge of day-to-day operations.

Time does not allow Becker to travel the world again, and his family and business ventures will remain at the forefront of his mind whilst away from his new job.

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Novak is a very talented player. He gets the reason why he's won so much already. Like many of the top athletes in sport, it's a natural ability, and that's helped make him become a fine tennis player. But, you have to work.

"He was already surrounded by a great team - I'm not the only guy that works with him. He's got an unbelievable conditioning trainer who knows an incredible amount, and then he's got a great physiotherapy team that works around the clock for him. Without them, he couldn't do it all.

"And he has Marian Vajda, his closest ally for seven or eight years, and he's still involved and part of the team. Novak has three or four people - like most top players these days - and we all have a role to play in his progress."

The explanation leads to a brief discussion of pressure, and whether Becker is feeling it at all after taking such a role. As well as his eight Grand Slams, the Serb has won the ATP Tour Finals four times, reached the world rankings summit and amassed career earnings in excess of €40 million.

Already regarded as one of the best of his generation, Djokovic's results are scrutinised a little closer now Becker is in his corner. Without a moment's hesitation, any suggestion of doubt is dismissed.

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"I feel excitement when he plays, not pressure. We all have pressure, and if you think about it then you're not made for it. It's part of life - you get up and you have pressure."

"I think it's a great challenge and I'm excited about it. I'm very focused on helping him win more big tournaments, and that's it."

COMPETITIVE EDGE

Speaking of big tournaments, Becker has played his part in a few away from the tennis court, again capitalising on his brand name to secure a deal with a well-known poker firm in 2007.

It's a game that appealed to the thinking man who was no longer able to flex his mental muscle against an opponent on the tennis court because of the physical demands.

Poker wasn't new to Becker at the end of his career though, having dabbled in card and board games to help keep his mind stimulated whilst on the professional tour.

"I have a character of a player. The way I played tennis, it was a game of percentage. It doesn't mean you win all the time, but I like a percentage play meaning 65 or 75% of the time I'd win with a particular shot.

"I used to think a lot when I play, so poker became very normal for me because it's a game of skill. Yes, there's an element of luck, and an ace doesn't hurt, but the good player will beat the not-so-good player over a long run.

I'm a kid at heart and want to play, and poker gave me that opportunity. It's not running around, but sitting down and facing your opponent.

"Having that one-to-one situation, putting on a poker face, reading the other guy, bluffing a little bit - it all became normal. As a tennis player, I always said that the next opponent was your hardest. In poker, the next hand was the hardest."

The motto has served Becker well in both instances, and something similar can certainly be applied to business as he looks for his next project.

Few can tell it better than Becker, and perhaps more importantly, few can sell it better either. It's a mark of the man that his brand value remains so high, 15 years after he called time on his illustrious career.

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