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Review: New Boris Becker documentary “Boom! Boom!” is a story well and brutally told
The movie could have been an hour shorter and the match highlights less extensive, but Apple TV's “Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker" offers a candid view on a complicated man.
Published Apr 23, 2023
FLASHBACK: The Break: Boris Becker sent to jail for flouting insolvency rules by hiding $3.1 million of assets and loans
When I came back to the U.S. after my first trip to Wimbledon two decades ago, an office-mate of mine asked me what, if anything, had surprised me about the world’s most famous tennis tournament.
“They really have a thing for Boris Becker over there,” were the first words out of my mouth.
For a guy who was already four years into retirement, Becker was ubiquitous around SW19. You could hear his unmistakable voice, with a German-inflected accent all its own, during matches on the BBC. You could read his newspaper column each morning during the fortnight. Then you could pick up a different paper and read about something he had done, or something he had said.
The days of “Boom Boom” running rampant across Centre Court, and “Bonking Boris” running rampant at Nobu, were over, but he was still a paparazzi-worthy figure in England. His famous mop of blonde hair was enough to draw cameras.
This wasn’t, and isn’t, true in the States. Becker did win the US Open once, but he never called Flushing Meadows “my house,” the way he did the All England Club. The triumphant and tragic events of his life, from his victory at Wimbledon at 17 to his recent eight-month stint in prison for hiding assets, took place across the Atlantic from us; his financial travails in particular have been hard to follow from that distance. Becker’s era, which lasted from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, has also not been memorialized or celebrated here in the same way that the Borg-McEnroe-Connors bad boys of the 1970s have.
All of which should make “Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker,” a new Apple TV documentary, an eye-opener for U.S. fans. What you get out of it, and how much you enjoy it, may depend on how much you enjoy tennis history.
I came into “Boom! Boom!” thinking that it would primarily tell the semi-sordid story of Becker’s many mid-life crises, and explain how he ended up in prison. But that tale doesn’t begin until the 152nd minute of this two-part, three and a half hour film. The second part of “Boom! Boom!” is subtitled “Disaster,” but only the final hour is devoted to it.
Instead, we get the full Boris, from his pre-teen practices with Steffi Graf, to his discovery by Ion Tiriac, to his life-changing romp through Wimbledon in 1985, to his friendships and dust-ups with rivals like McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Michael Stich, and Pete Sampras. We watch exhaustive footage from Becker’s biggest matches, and hear candid views on this complicated, cerebral man from many of the important people in his life, including his first manager, Tiriac; his first wife, Barbara Feltus; his first idol, Bjorn Borg; his best-known coach, Nick Bollettieri; rivals like McEnroe and Stich; and a more recent player that he coached for three seasons, Novak Djokovic.
Most crucially, we hear from Becker himself, at length, and with as much brutal honesty as he can muster. The film opens at a chilling moment: He’s interviewed two days before his sentence is passed down. For the next three hours, he helps narrate his own demise.
“Boom! Boom!” is produced by two well-known documentary-makers, Alex Gibney (“Enron”) and John Battsek (“Searching for Sugar Man”). The fact that Becker himself is not a co-producer gives them more freedom to tell the unvarnished truth. While Becker sounds forthcoming in his interviews, Gibney occasionally interjects to let us know that the reality behind some of the German’s stories and explanations is more complicated, and less flattering, than he’s letting on.
The movie could have been an hour shorter, and the match highlights less extensive. But as a tennis fan, I was happy to see that era and its players get their due. Happy to see clips of the half-forgotten Stich; happy to be reminded of the period’s more ludicrous moments, such as the “cough off” between Becker and McEnroe in Paris; happy to hear Feltus’s level-headed perspective in particular.
Gibney’s theory is that Becker’s attitude as a tennis player helps explain his post-career downfall. Becker was, as Tiriac puts it, “a child drawn to the flame.” As a player, he enjoyed falling behind in matches, and finding ways to extricate himself from danger. After his retirement, he continued to be drawn to the flame. Away from the court, though, he had no idea how to pull himself out of the fire.
The downfall, when it finally comes, happens with shocking speed. A few hours after his final match, at Wimbledon in 1998, he goes to Nobu with his “boys,” and has sex on the premises with Russian model Angela Ermakova. “Eight months later, there was a fax,” Becker says, letting him know she was going to have his child.
Becker says that retiring at 29 felt like “entering a dark room.” His father, who had been the decision-maker in the family, had recently passed away. He would soon become embroiled in a drawn-out divorce proceeding with Feltus. “I didn’t know him like this,” she says. “It felt like I was a team member and I got let go.”
Becker himself believes that after becoming a millionaire at 17, he lost all perspective on the value of money, and had no idea how to balance earning it and spending it.
The next 20 years, it seems, were a long tale of financial overextension. Becker had two wives and four kids, houses in multiple countries, and no way to make the kind of money he was accustomed to making as a player. There was a Swiss tax bill he couldn’t cover, a high-interest loan he couldn’t pay back, and a jilted business partner who seemed out for revenge. Finally, he filed for bankruptcy and was accused and convicted of hiding property, including some of his trophies.
“Boris was a different guy,” Bollettieri says with a perplexed smile. Becker does come across as an unusually complex character for a pro athlete: ruthless yet naive, friendly yet selfish, down to earth yet profligate, someone who reached the pinnacle of life at 17.
What struck me most, though, was the influence that Borg’s rise and fall had on Becker’s life. Becker, who knew that Borg had flamed out and retired at 25, was already questioning his own desire to play in his early 20s. Becker, who knew that Borg had crashed and burned when his playing days ended, immediately started to do everything he could to make that happen to himself. In the 1980s and 90s, Borg was the template for a tennis champion; Becker, unfortunately, followed his hero’s lead all too well.
Bottom Line: If you love tennis and tennis history, watch all of “Boom! Boom!” If you just want to know “what the heck happened to Boris Becker?” start at the 55-minute mark of Part 2. Either way, it’s a story well, and brutally, told.