If Boris Becker did manage to communicate anything from his seat in the players’ balcony during Novak Djokovic’s slightly lukewarm straight-sets defeat of Philipp Kohlschreiber on the opening afternoon at Wimbledon it wasn’t immediately obvious to those watching on Centre Court.
Unless, that is, Becker’s coded nods and winks involved urging his man to start slowly before mooching decisively up through the gears, accompanied perhaps by a few heavily encrypted noises off about what to do for dinner tonight.
Good old Boris. Thirty years on from his own emergence as a startlingly bold 17-year-old champion, south-west London’s pet middle-aged German uber-athlete has again been causing a stir, this time in his role as coach and all-round celebrity batman to the world’s No1 player.
Albeit for reasons neither will welcome right now. After his victory here Djokovic reacted a little testily to being questioned once again over claims Becker has admitted to passing on information during play via hand signals or instructions in Serbian, both of which would be breaches of the playing regulations. If it was inevitable the champion’s opening match would attract additional interest as a result, with necks craned for every twitch of the Becker jowls, it was equally certain nothing of any significance would pass between coach and player here.
Even with Djokovic producing some surprising unforced errors deep into the third set, the unseeded Kohlschreiber was only ever likely to be a minor diversion. If the champion is to equal his coach’s achievement and win a third Wimbledon title it is only much later in the piece, during those familiar five-set agonies, that the temptation will be there to lift his eyes to the players’ box.
Not that this was ever likely to still the sense of intrigue as Djokovic emerged on to a steamy, slightly sleepy Centre Court to a swell of champion’s applause. As the players completed their warmup there was a further rustle of interest as Becker took his seat and proceeded to spend the next five minutes carefully fluffing his hair. Djokovic responded with an ace in the first point of the match. In the press box notes were hastily scribbled. Hair fluff. Ace. Steadily, piece by piece, we will crack this code.
Before long a pair of freckled forearms had appeared folded across the front of Becker’s balcony seat, just as Djokovic broke serve from the back of the court, skimming his groundstrokes across the tape from both corners. Moments later Kohlschreiber shook off his lassitude and began to return with power on both wings, pulling back to 2-2 despite a dramatic late display of surreptitious nose-picking from Becker, which presumably went unheeded by his charge.
It is of course all a little farcical. Certainly there are some who would question the basic idea that coaching equals cheating, a fairly arbitrary notion of etiquette about which tennis, much like cricket and its slightly nebulous “spirit”, feels extremely strongly while at the same time having a slightly vague sense of its detail – always a dynamite combination. Gamesmanship, breaking an opponent’s concentration, delaying a point: this always been a part of the game. Worse in the eyes of some is Djokovic’s alleged tendency to feign injury or play lame at crucial moments, only to re-emerge suddenly into a state of perfect bullish good health.
In terms of influence from the fringes Becker has some history. Thirty years ago he was close to conceding his quarter-final against Tim Mayotte after injuring an ankle. At which point Becker’s manager, Ion Tiriac, marched down on to the court, batted away Mayotte’s complaints and instructed his man to carry on. Becker won in five sets. Technically, this was cheating. In reality it’s a brilliant piece of theatre, which is, after all, a major part of the basic allure of a sport bound up now in diffuse conflicting influences, from power-dressed private box to the celebrity entourage and unsmiling mega-coach.
Still there are good reasons for preserving the enforced omertà during play. For a start tennis is, like no other sport, a business of manners and nuance and finely wrought tactical badinage. It isn’t hard to see how the intimacy of the basic spectacle could be diluted by allowing too much outside influence. More importantly the response in amateur tennis to a more permissive approach at the top tier frankly doesn’t bear thinking about. In the junior levels this is a sport run in large part by ambitious parents, where mannered aggression from the sidelines is already a long-suffering in-joke.
Not that anything is likely to stop the best players seeking an edge, whether from an on-court coaching code or simply a more diffuse kind of inspiration. Becker may have retained the Wimbledon title in 1986, but only Roger Federer and Pete Sampras have managed it since. If Djokovic is to do something similar this year he will need every marginal gain in his favour, not to mention more of the kind of rhythm and timing that were there as he took the second set with a beautiful inside-out backhand winner, and the bellow of a man feeling his game finally crunching into gear.
The Serb is of course is the ultimate all-court man, a champion who parachutes into this tournament without warm-up and adapts on the job to the surface, as though simply butching out a bad case of trans-Atlantic jet lag. As he strolled with a gathering sense of control through the final set Boris sat and frowned, writhing now and then like a trapped bear in his tiny little leatherette seat, a man who is in the style of so many big, boisterous retired sporting stars, quite clearly a terrible watcher. There is no doubt more to come from hand-signal-gate. Not to mention a first suggestion afterwards of some irritation at Becker’s loose talk. For now it is simply a point of irritation in what promises to be, as ever, the tightest of tournaments.
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