Saturday 22 September 2018

Wimbledon woes: The stars whom fortune didn't favour

With the famous tennis tournament getting under way next week, Donal Lynch looks at the money troubles of some of the icons of the '90s

Boris Becker had a very brief fling with model Angela Ermakova, who gave birth to his daughter Anna in 2000, causing a protracted paternity case
Boris Becker had a very brief fling with model Angela Ermakova, who gave birth to his daughter Anna in 2000, causing a protracted paternity case
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The little lots of memorabilia look strangely touching; nothing dates like sporting equipment, but equally nothing is quite as redolent of youth. To the naked eye, they were just a battered looking tennis racket and a few tatty whites. But if you grew up in the 1980s, these pieces of Boris Becker's old kit were relics of sporting nostalgia.

They now look as old-fashioned as the wooden rackets of the Fred Perry era. Becker's shorts are almost hot pants. The knots of his Lotto vest seem to come with their own Last Christmas soundtrack. Dismayingly, their low price tags - some of the bidding starts at £500 (€570) - give the impression of a glorified garage sale. How could Becker, with his big, honest face, charmingly nasal voice and iconically booming game, have fallen so low?

If there were any justice, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi would swoop in and offer to buy the trophies and rackets from Becker, much in the same way that John McEnroe offered to buy Bjorn Borg's Wimbledon trophies when they were sold to pay the Swedish star's debts just a few years ago. But there wasn't quite the same camaraderie among the tennis legends of the 1990s. And there would be so many to bail out; tennis players, like child stars, are unusually vulnerable to post-career financial meltdown.

Female legends have not been immune either - Steffi Graf's father was jailed for tax evasion. Her old arch-rival, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, is locked in a protracted legal battle over her lost millions.

Why do so many of the tennis stars of yesteryear fall on hard times?

Perhaps this susceptibility to financial meltdown comes from the great distance many of its stars travel, from working-class beginnings to the heart of a country club sport. They are thrust into the spotlight at an early age, under-age sole traders relying on a roster of family and advisers to guide them.

The prizes are big: When the Venus Rosewater Dish and the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy are handed over in three weeks, their new owners will also become some €2.57m richer.

Tennis is outside the top five richest sports in the world - its rank-and-file struggle to make a living - but individually those at the very top of the game are among the very wealthiest athletes. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have earned more than all but a handful of basketball players, footballers and boxers.

For most of the last decade, the entire top 10 of Forbes' list of richest female athletes in the world have come from the sport. They are also the most marketable crossover stars - Serena Williams performed with Beyonce and attended the royal wedding, for instance - but when they retire, their relevance and celebrity quickly wanes and the fortune that they earned in the good years has to last a lifetime.

It can be difficult, Ivan Lendl once wrote, to adapt the selfish mindset of an athlete to the civilian life that comes after a star-crossed tennis career.

Becker is still fighting a bankruptcy declaration made by a British court last June. He is now claiming diplomatic immunity, based on his appointment, in April of this year, by the Central African Republic as sports, cultural and humanitarian and affairs attache to the EU.

This bookends a fall-from-grace story that saw him go from Wimbledon champion to walking headline by frittering through money, relationships and business ventures in retirement.

London's Bankruptcy Court is just eight miles from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, where in 1985, almost to the week, Becker's life was set on a very different path.

The then 17-year-old threw his arms to the heavens and tossed his head back as the crowd rose to its feet - the unseeded teenager had just become the youngest Wimbledon men's singles champion in history. "I'm the first German, and I think this will change tennis in Germany. They never had an idol, and now maybe they have one," he told a New York Times reporter afterwards.

At the time it was thought that Becker might be a flash in the pan but he set about burnishing a Hall of Fame career - two more Wimbledon titles, a US Open, two Australian Opens, two Davis Cups for Germany, Olympic silver in doubles (with Michael Stich) and a world Number 1 ranking.

But Becker also established himself as a very different animal from his hyper-focused compatriot Steffi Graf. With sponsors and women courting him, the boy-wonder earned a reputation for on-court histrionics and off-court scandal.

"All those girls, hysterical, crazy, already waiting for hours for him outside hotels," former coach Gunther Bosch recalled in a biography he wrote of Becker.

In 1987, Becker, then two-time title holder at Wimbledon, crashed out of the Australian Open, losing to a virtual unknown and losing his cool, spitting water at the umpire and smashing rackets.

When he suffered a similar loss to an unknown at Wimbledon months later, the story went around that he'd become too distracted by his romantic antics and the tabloids dubbed him 'Bonking Boris'. 'Too much sex beats Boris' screamed one headline.

In the early 1990s, he appeared to settle down with model wife Barbara Feltus. She was a stalwart in his box for most of the decade but the marriage hit the rocks over revelations that he had fathered a love child with Russian model Angela Ermakova after they had a tryst in the broom closet at a Japanese restaurant in London - while a pregnant Feltus was in the hospital.

"(Ermakova) looked directly at me, the look of the hunter that said 'I want you'," he admitted in his 2003 auto­biography. "There she was again, walking twice past the bar. And again this look. A little while later she left her table for the toilet. I followed behind. . . Five minutes small talk and then straight away into the nearest possible place and down to business."

A protracted paternity case and a lengthy and bitter divorce battle with Feltus cost him his luxury home in Miami and custody of their two sons. He was then forced to pay another €1m to buy a London home for Ermakova, whom he claimed had impregnated herself after oral sex with him.

After years of investigations, German authorities in 2002 brought charges against Becker for almost €1.8m in tax evasion, revealing that he had been living in Germany during his years as a pro while claiming to live in Monaco.

The alleged offences were serious and authorities pressed for a custodial sentence, but Becker got off with a hefty fine and a suspended sentence. Still, he claimed the ordeal cost him his career.

Becker has tried his hand at a number of other gigs since retiring from tennis - sports commentator, shilling for Mercedes, and even as a professional poker player. He was married to Dutch model Lilly Kerssenberg and had another son with her, but the pair split earlier this year, likely lumbering him with further big bills.

In 2012, the former player fell behind on debts he owed to contractors for work on his luxury villa in Majorca and a judge repossessed the property that he had bought in the 1990s - a sprawling 62-acre complex with a guesthouse, pool, tennis and basketball courts and an ­orange grove. Becker managed get the property back and he's been trying to sell it himself ever since.

In court last year, Becker's lawyers tried to argue that he could still satisfy his creditors by refinancing the property for €6m.

"He is not a sophisticated individual when it comes to finances. I am asking for a real last chance for Mr Becker to come good... It has just taken longer than anticipated," said his lawyer, John Briggs.

Becker is not the only tennis legend trying, somehow, to buy more time. In Barcelona, the Banque de Luxembourg has recently filed a criminal complaint against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who won four grand slam titles for Spain. The bank wants the court to put both Sanchez Vicario and her estranged husband Josep Santacana into pre-trial detention because of an old tax debt that has ballooned to €7.5m.

The bank expects the couple to return to Spain to face charges. According to the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, the bank had already filed a complaint against them nearly three years ago for property and credit fraud. And while that complaint was upheld, the bank has yet to see a penny of the judgment.

Tenacious defence defined Sanchez Vicario's career. She was a child prodigy, born into a tennis-playing family - two of her brothers also became professional tennis players.

In 1989 she used her foot speed and pugnacious drop shots to upset Steffi Graf - then on a six Grand Slam-winning streak - and win the French Open.

Throughout the 1990s, she battled Graf and Seles for big titles and beat both of them in significant matches. In 1995, she was involved in one of the most famous final sets in Wimbledon history - losing a nail-biter to Graf.

The American journalist Bud Collins christened her 'The Barcelona Bumblebee' but in fact, Sanchez Vicario was, for tax purposes, resident in the tiny principality of Andorra. After she retired, Spanish tax authorities, like German authorities in the case of Becker, began to dispute her residency claims. Sanchez Vicario was fined €3.5m, which was appealed all the way to the Spanish Supreme Court, which upheld the original ruling. By 2009, the original fine of €3.5m had grown to €5.2m with interest.

The Bank of Luxembourg has been trying to get the money from Sanchez Vicario for nearly eight years, as the former player pleaded ignorance about her assets and kept asking for extensions. Last week the bank claimed in court papers that Sanchez Vicario had hired "figureheads" in her circle to manage her affairs.

Sanchez Vicario had always blamed the family patriarch, Emilio, for absconding with much of her fortune. During her playing years, she said her mother Marisa had decided almost every aspect of her life, down to what she wore. After her career was over, fissures began to appear in this tightly-knit family unit.

Sanchez Vicario's first husband was journalist Joan Vehils. That lasted about a year. When she married Santacana in 2008, the lavishness of the nuptials were the talk of the tennis world.

Her father hired a private detective to follow Santacana, and found he was hugely in debt, but in the end, her parents did attend the wedding. By then, Sanchez Vicario was already pregnant with her first child, daughter Arantxa, now nine. The couple also have a seven-year-old son, Leo.

As the marriage began to break down, Sanchez Vicario's financial and family woes began to bubble to the surface. She wrote an explosive tell-all book, heavily covered in the Spanish media, in which she accused her parents of mishandling her fortune - at the press conference to launch the book she was in tears.

She sued her father and brother, Javier, and the case went through the court system for three years between 2012 and 2015. In the end, there was a private settlement, which seemed to do little to heal the family rift.

When Emilio Sanchez Sr died two years ago, Sanchez Vicario and her husband were asked to leave the funeral home by other members of the family.

Sanchez Vicario has now split from Santacana and is involved in a custody dispute with him over their two children.

Happily for Sanchez Vicario, her troubles have been barely reported in English language media. The tennis world remains a sanctuary where off-court travails are rarely discussed. Aside from the odd tabloid interloper, at Wimbledon the sports media stick rigorously to discussion of the Xs and Os of on-court battles.

Perhaps for this reason both Sanchez Vicario and Becker will be present and correct in SW19 this year - she for the Legend's event, he as a commentator for the BBC.

Their stories may serve as cautionary tales for the present-day stars, and for a brief, shining two weeks, perhaps they can put their money troubles behind them and bask in the sport that made them famous.

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