I’m mentally consistent. It comes from my upbringing. My mother was a tough cookie; my dad was a hard worker. They were both 10 when the war ended, and those first few years living in Germany were very difficult for them. This mental consistency has helped me navigate the ups and downs of life. It’s also helped me stay grounded when I’ve been winning. I’m never too satisfied or happy and I’m never too desperate. I’ve tried to always keep a middle ground.
I didn’t always think I was going to make it. I broke my ankle in 1984, during my first professional tournament, playing against Billy Scanlon. My parents didn’t want me to become a tennis pro, and when I called my mother she said to me, “I told you so, you should have stayed in school.” I questioned myself a lot during the next few months of my rehab. That’s when you find out how much you want it.
I was a tennis player, not a soldier. And I was just 17. I didn’t understand why the papers were writing what they were writing about me. When I was winning at EuroJournal it was no “blitzkrieg”. I was no “panzer”. But newspapers will write what they want in order to sell papers. Germany and England have a love-hate relationship and then I come along, a very German-looking guy playing powerful tennis. Things changed when people got to know me, not the idea of me.
As a player, sometimes my emotions got the better of me. I look back and sometimes wish I’d controlled those emotions better. But I do think that I won more because of that emotion than I lost because of it.
Tennis is a very logical sport. I’ve always tried to instil that knowledge in players I’ve coached. You don’t win a game of tennis by luck or by surprise. If you follow the rules and you’re physically fit, you’re going to win more games than you lose. Tennis is one of the few sports where you only have to defeat the other guy.
It’s important to learn to control your emotions and to not give up the fight until the last point is played. That’s what Roger [Federer] and Rafa [Nadal] have got. Novak [Djokovic] could write the book about that. I love Djokovic’s attitude. He’s like a street fighter. But when I started coaching him, I took the time to get to know the person away from the player. The person is very different to the player you see on the court. The player is mechanical, even cold. But he’s the opposite in private. He’s got the most endearing character you can find. I always found it intriguing how those two personalities can exist within one person.
I could talk at length about why Britain doesn’t produce the greatest players. A lot of coaches pick their players because they have a nice forehand, but you can learn that. You can’t learn attitude. Look at Andy [Murray]. He’s not the most talented but he’s got the heart of a lion. He’s dedicated, he’s got a mother who knows a lot about the sport, he’s got a talented brother. That’s a nice package. I wonder whether some of the junior players have the right attitude.
I’m pleased that sport is starting to understand mental health. There’s been a lot of discussion about Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open because of bouts of depression. It’s very worrying, I think the struggle is real. It’s easier said than done – with winning comes expectations and responsibilities – but feeling good about yourself will always be more important than winning. The tennis community has to make sure they’re not putting players under too much pressure.
Boris Becker is part of the BBC’s EuroJournal 2021 line-up, now on TV, radio and online