The first of two films on tennis legend Boris Backer’s drama-filled life by Alex Gibney
Dir/scr: Alex Gibney. UK, USA. 2023. 98mins
A six-time Grand Slam champion; the youngest person, at seventeen, ever to win Wimbledon; the possessor of an infamous piledriver of a serve; a superstar whose fame transcended the world of sport and made him a household name; a man who fell dramatically from glory and served time in prison – Boris Becker is a rich subject for a documentary. It speaks volumes of director Alex Gibney’s passion for the sport that in the first of two feature-length films that will be shown on Apple TV+, tennis is the primary focus, with the strident headlines and the vagaries of Becker’s personal life getting a distant second billing. As such, the picture serves as a deep dive into sports psychology, rather than the knotty personality study of sports documentaries such as Barney Douglas’s McEnroe.
Tennis is the primary focus, with the strident headlines and the vagaries of Becker’s personal life getting a distant second billing
Becker, Gibney argues, has a flair for the dramatic. And this has informed his tennis game. This first film deals with Becker’s rise as a supremely gifted young player, up until a key defeat of Ivan Lendl earned him the title of the world number one. It only touches upon the cautionary tale which comes later in the Becker life story – elements that will no doubt figure more prominently in the second film.
Interest in the two films will be keenest in Germany – Becker jokes that a newspaper editor in the 1980s told him that only three subjects were guaranteed to sell German papers: Adolf Hitler, the reunification of Germany and Boris Becker. But Becker’s status as a cultural figure as well as a sporting hero, plus Oscar-winner Gibney’s reputation as a filmmaker, should ensure that the audience for this picture and its sequel extends beyond the tennis world.
That said, non-tennis fans may find their endurance tested by the proportion of the film which focuses on the game. Anticipating this, Gibney takes a double-pronged attack, repurposing the spaghetti Western shootout scores of Ennio Morricone for key matches, and skilfully editing the four-hour-plus slogs into the breathless essence of competition. And even a tennis dunce can see that Becker was a powerhouse of a player. His serve was one thing, but there’s also the skin-flaying dives and skids across the court, and the self-jeopardising slow starts that, Gibney theorises, were a deliberate strategy designed to boost his adrenaline.
The film consists of extensive and well-sourced archive material, combined with interview footage which was shot on two separate occasions. The first session took place in 2019, when the former star’s legal woes were just beginning; the second in 2022, a few days before he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison (although ultimately, he served eight months of the sentence before being deported from the UK back to Germany).
He is a candid subject but Gibney, who casts himself as a narrator as well as an interrogator, points out that Becker is not always entirely reliable. There are inconsistencies, for example, about the moment when Becker ended his dependence on sleeping tablets: Becker claims that he threw his remaining pills out of a window, Becker’s ex-wife Barbara says that she flushed the tablets two years later.
Meanwhile, the shadow of Becker’s financial irregularities grows larger and more ominous as the film progresses. The film ends with the cautionary message that the very traits that drove Becker to greatness would lead to his downfall just a few years later, setting the tone for the second of the two documentaries.
Production companies: Ventureland, Jigsaw Productions
International sales: Apple TV+
Producers: John Battsek, Alex Gibney
Editing: Michael J Palmer
Music: Peter Nashel, Eric Hachikian
Main cast: Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Ion Tiriac, Novak Djokovic, Barbara Becker, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Lilian de Carvalh