Sporting Upsets: When 17-year-old Boris Becker became the new boss of Centre Court

The 1985 Wimbledon men’s final introduced a new tennis superstar to the world

As a Bruce Springsteen devotee, it's likely that Kevin Curren was aware of how lengthy his concerts tend to be, some of them even nudging past the four hour mark. So, when he set off for Wembley Stadium on July 6th, 1985 to see the latest stop in the Born in the USA tour, he'd have had a fair idea that it'd be a while before he'd see his bed.

No harm in that, unless, maybe, you have a Wimbledon final to play the next day.

“Insane,” he conceded when he spoke to The Guardian a few years back, even if he savoured every one of the 30 songs that the Boss played that night. But the South African was feeling so relaxed and confident about the final, heading for Wembley rather than having an ice bath and an early night seemed like a good idea at the time.

He had good cause to feel confident, too. In his six matches en route to the final he had dropped just one set, to Mike de Palmer in the second round, handing out thrashings to defending and former champions John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in the quarter- and semi-finals, becoming the first man to beat both players in the same tournament. And before then he'd seen off Stefan Edberg in straight sets too. He was, then, in the form of his life, rising to fifth in the world rankings after the tournament.

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And, after all, he was only playing an unseeded 17-year-old in the final – and unseeded 17-year-olds tend not to win the men’s Wimbledon singles title.

But Boris Becker, as it proved, was no ordinary 17-year-old.

A fortnight before he had won the traditional pre-Wimbledon warm-up tournament at Queen's Club, the first senior title of a professional career that was only a year old. But not too many would have taken seriously the suggestion from the man he beat, Curren's fellow South African Johan Kriek, that Becker could win Wimbledon if he maintained his Queen's form. It turned out that Kriek's crystal ball was in full working order.

Mind you, it could all have ended for Becker in the third round when he was three match points down to seventh seed Joakim Nystrom. He fought back, though, taking the fifth set 9-7. He looked done again in the fourth round when he was on the verge of conceding his match to Tim Mayotte after injuring his ankle, but his coach Ion Tiriac urged him to instead call for the doctor. He did, had the ankle strapped up, and went on to win another five-setter.

It was a big enough story that a 17-year-old was advancing through the tournament like he was, but it was the way Becker played his tennis that most thrilled the crowds. As the writer Mashkur Hussain put it, “he romped through his matches like an overgrown, over-sugared child, hurling himself around like a puppy”, his shirt and shorts grass-stained from diving at the net to reach seemingly unreachable shots, come match-end the fella looking more like he’d spent the afternoon in a scrum than on a tennis court.

It was the Indian player Vijay Amritraj who christened him 'Boom Boom Becker' because he had never seen a player hit the ball so hard, Hussain recalling that one British reporter likened his serves to "the missiles of the Wehrmacht". No, really.

His power, aggression, athleticism, energy, exuberance and speed around the court was like nothing Wimbledon had seen before, his taking of the ball so early and his rushing of the net after those booming serves leaving his opponents feeling more than a little rushed themselves.

Neither Henri Leconte nor Anders Jarryd, the fifth seed, could cope with him in the quarter- and semi-finals, Becker winning both in four sets, and it was the same story for the Springsteen fan in the final. While Curren levelled the match after Becker had taken the opening set, he lost the tie-breaker that decided the third before Becker took the fourth 6-4 to become the youngest man to win a Grand Slam title.

“This victory was my own personal moon landing,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Player. “I was just 17 years and 227 days old; I couldn’t legally drive in Germany. I cut my own hair, and my mother sent me toothpaste because she was worried about my teeth.” And here he was, a Wimbledon champion.

The only dampener on the experience at the time, he recalled in his book, was the tendency of elements of the British press to use “wartime cliches” in their coverage of him. He gave, as an example, this rather remarkable extract from the Evening Standard:

"As the seventeen-year-old raised a triumphant arm in a victory salute, the image seemed hauntingly familiar. It was almost as if a Josef Goebbels' Hitler Youth poster had come to life. There was something about those penetrating blue eyes, that shock of fair hair, the sheer physical power, that seal of self-belief. Forty years earlier such a figure would surely have been captured on film by Leni Riefenstahl in her portrayal of the German people as a race descended from Nordic Gods."

And then there was Rex Bellamy writing in the London Times: "How odd it is that Germany should have such a personal interest in a court on which, in 1940, they dropped a bomb."

Strewth.

But as the months wore on, the entire experience of winning Wimbledon had soured for Becker, and even now he looks back on it with a surprising degree of bitterness because of the impact it had on his life.

“The pressure that built up after my first great triumph was inhuman,” he wrote. “From that day on, nothing in my life remained the same. Boris from Leimen [his home town] died at Wimbledon in 1985 and a new Boris emerged, who was taken at once into public ownership.”

“Goodbye, freedom. Hands reaching out to you, tearing the buttons from your jacket; fingernails raking over your skin as if they wanted a piece of your flesh. A photograph, a signature – no, two, three, more . . . Love letters, begging letters, blackmail. Bodyguards on the golf course and on the terraces at Bayern Munich. Security cameras in the trees of our home, paparazzi underneath the table or in the toilets. Exclusive – see Becker peeing. And everything I did had consequences.”

He even likened himself to Edmund Hillary reaching the top of Everest and realising "what a burden he was about to take on".

If he resented how much his personal life had changed, he rued the effect of that success on his game too. “For my education as a tennis player it was probably too early, because every time I went back on a tennis court, everything was compared to Wimbledon ’85,” he told the BBC back in 2015. “So I didn’t give myself the time to experiment, to improve my backhand, to improve my footwork, because I was part of the circus.”

But while many a young sports person has crumbled under the weight of expectation after early and dramatic successes in their careers, Becker went on to win five more Grand Slam titles, including the one he regarded as the most important of his career, when he successfully defended his Wimbledon crown a year later against Ivan Lendl.

Mind you, even that didn’t bring him happiness. “Was Becker 1985 a fluke, or was he really a mega talent? It felt like a matter of life or death. It was the most pressure I’d ever been under. The wunderkind had to prove himself. The reaction in Germany was overwhelming, but it left me strangely cold. After all, only a month before they’d written me off.”

He’s become no less bitter through the years towards the German press in particular, although his private life has, at times, been so chaotic he’s given them plenty to write about. Not every former Wimbledon champion, for example, gets someone pregnant in the broom cupboard of a sushi restaurant.

That, he suspects, will be what he is best remembered for, but he’s wrong. Nothing will ever top his own personal moon-landing in 1985.