Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2
Boris Breskvar, the man who ran the tennis center in Germany where Boris Becker, Anke Huber, and occasionally Steffi Graf trained as children, passed away this week at the age of 70. Here is an article from 1989, which probably has been posted before in edited form at least, but it's a good way to commemorate him.
Deutschland double play Federation coach doesn't agree Graf, Becker are a coincidence
The San Diego Union
Sunday, July 30, 1989
At the Baden Tennis Center in the Heidelberg suburb of Leimen, the most productive of 13 regional training facilities operated by the West German Tennis Federation, coach Boris Breskvar finishes hitting with three youngsters and invites a visitor into his office. The wall behind his desk is covered with photos, a couple of which he points to with particular pride. There he is with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker at the European junior championships in 1981. And five years earlier, a group photo of the Baden kids, when Graf had just turned 7 and Becker was a lad of 8.
Surely soon there will be another picture in the gallery: Graf and Becker, now 20 and 21, the day three weeks ago that she won the women's singles title at Wimbledon for the second straight year and he recaptured the men's crown he held in 1985-86. It must have been destined they would reign together, for rain dictated that both finals were played the same day for the first time in 16 years. If you perused newsstands in Germany the week after this extraordinary "Deutschland Doppel," they dominated the covers. One magazine even had them dressed in full regalia like king and queen.
"Before the tournament, Boris and I went out for dinner, with his girlfriend and my coach, and we met a couple of times during the tournament and talked quite a bit," said Graf, who is playing for the first time since Wimbledon in the Great American Bank Tennis Classic, beginning tomorrow at the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club.
"In other tournaments, we saw each other and said hello and that was it. This was the first time we communicated more than before, and we both came out as the winner. Afterwards, we hugged. It was a great moment for both of us because we have known each other quite awhile."
A fairytale come true, Becker says, "I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls, so when I was almost 9 and she was 7, I all the time had to hit with her. From then on we more or less went through the same tournament and matches and we all the time kept a relationship...It's impossible to think something like this can happen."
It also was gratifying for Breskvar, who worked with Graf occasionally and casually, and coached Becker daily, from the time they were barely out of kindergarten until they were teen-agers. He had them hit against each other sometimes -- not only because Graf was then the top girl in Baden and Becker the runt of the region's promising boys, but also because he saw in them the similar stuff of champions.
"Steffi was exceptional talent, and also mentally very, very strong," he said. "She was never afraid. You know, when it is 5-all in the final set, they are all afraid a little bit. They push the ball a little bit. Not Steffi and Boris. They were never afraid. They also lost matches, 5-7, in the third set, but they never pushed their shots.
"Also, they liked to compete. Steffi and Boris asked me all the time, 'Can I play a set? Can I play a match against this one?' They always wanted to play the better one. A lot of children want to practice , to hit balls, but if I say, 'Now we make a match for a drink,' they say: 'I would prefer to practice.' Steffi and Boris worked hard, hours every day. If you made them take half an hour to do work from school, they wanted to come back to the courts. Now this is normal, but for that time, it was something new."
Breskvar, 47, who played internationally for his native Yugoslavia and has been employed by the German and Baden federations for 18 years, was at Wimbledon the second week of the fortnight with a team of German juniors. He watched the men's final at Centre Court, guest of Becker's Romanian manager-svengali, Ion Tiriac, an old friend from their touring days. An outgoing, expressive man with burning brown eyes, Breskvar saw Graf and Becker hold their trophies aloft and thought back to the kids on his wall.
"For a coach," he said, "this is a super feeling, something really special."
Becker grew up in Leimen, a town of 20,000 previously best known for producing cement. His home was less than a mile from the Blau-Weiss (Blue-White) Tennis Club, where the indoor courts are now called Boris Becker Halle; he started hitting against a wall at age 5. After the Baden center was built across the street in 1976, Boris practiced almost exclusively there.
His father, architect Karl-Heinz Becker, designed both the tennis center and Breskvar's house. The coach discovered the young Boris at a talent search at Heidelberg's Schwarz und Gelt (Black and Gold) Club in 1974, and worked with him for 10 years. At 16, Becker was turned over to Gunther Bosch, a Romanian-born friend of Tiriac, a year before Becker became the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon.
"His father told me, 'Take care of my boy, and I don't interfere. You must do everything,' " Breskvar said. "Before he went to Bosch, he asked me three times to travel and coach Boris. I told him I prefer to stay in Leimen. I don't want my boss to be one young guy. Nothing against Boris, who is a very good friend, but I prefer to work with a lot of juniors."
His relationship with Graf is decidedly cooler. She is from Bruhl, a town of 14,000 a few miles northwest of Leimen, closer to industrial Mannheim. In his instructional book -- Boris Becker's Tennis: The Making of a Champion, which has been published in Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, England and Holland -- Breskvar recalled his introduction:
"She was only 6 when she first came to us, but she already had a fairly reasonable technique. She had learned the basics from her father, who was a tennis coach. I can clearly recall the first time we met. Peter Graf came up to me and said, 'I've found out as much as I can about you, and I think you're the right man to train Steffi -- because one day she's going to be No. 1 in the world.' I don't think I can be blamed for assuming that I was talking to yet another of these ambitious fathers who think the whole world is just waiting to see their child play... By the time we had completed the half-hour training session I was greatly impressed, and inwardly asked Peter Graf to forgive me for thinking ill of him, for Steffi really did have talent."
Her father groomed Graf's game and is still her principal adviser, although former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player Pavel Slozil also travels with her as hitting partner and coach. Breskvar believes the Baden center played more of a part in Graf's ascent than the family is willing to admit, but Steffi said: "My coach was my father. When he didn't have so much time because he was giving lessons himself, I went to the center. I played there until I was 12 or 13 -- maybe 15 or 20 times a year."
Breskvar is an energetic left-hander who puts an intriguing variety of spins on tennis balls and converses in six languages (German, English, French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and his native Slovenian). He does not dwell in the past, which in his case includes being the third man on Yugoslavian Davis Cup teams that featured two players ranked in the world top 10: Nikki Pilic (now the German Davis Cup captain) and Zeljko Franulovic. At the Baden center, which he calls "the most beautiful and important in the country," he has a number of promising prospects.
Invited by Tiriac to West Germany's recent conquest of the United States in the Davis Cup semifinals in Munich, he took along two girls for whom he has high hopes: Anke Huber, 13, already the best junior girl in Germany and considered "the next Graf," and recent Romanian defector Mirela Vadulescu, 12, who has moved to Leimen with her family and was signed to a contract by Tiriac six months ago. Breskvar smilingly predicts, "They will be playing each other in the Wimbledon final in five years."
These days, however, the coach is frequently asked to reminisce about Graf and Becker, and he happily obliges. They were both exposed early to a sophisticated program that incorporates not only traditional training in technique and tactics, but physical and psychological conditioning. Breskvar works closely with Prof. Hermann Rieder, director of the Sports Science Institute at Heidelberg's celebrated university, the oldest in Germany and inspiration for the operetta "The Student Prince."
"He is a top teacher and has written about 30 books, and he was also German champion in the javelin and is the national trainer in that event, so he is not only theoretical, but very strong in practical," said Breskvar. "For five years he helped me with Boris and Steffi, making psychological tests, motivational tests, studies. He agrees with me that it is very important to train children not only in tennis, but in other ball sports."
Breskvar pointed to basketball hoops and goals for soccer and field hockey on an area paved in asphalt, adjacent to the four red clay courts at his center. Here players develop their sense of space, movement and what it is possible to do with a ball and bodies.
"We play these sports a lot, as well as sprints and jumps and other athletic drills for conditioning," Breskvar said. "I think this is very important when children are 9, 10, 11, because you must play a lot of combinations in your head. How to beat the opponent, move, set up a score. If you can transfer this to tennis, you can improve a lot. Steffi is a wonderful basketball player. Boris is good in basketball and very, very strong in soccer."
He pointed to the photo from the '81 European juniors. With Graf and Becker, there was another boy whose name is unfamiliar.
"This guy was also European champion, same age, also from here," Breskvar said. "He is nothing now. I told his parents, 'After practice, we have additional training -- a little bit basketball, soccer, hockey.' They said, 'No thank you, Mr. Breskvar, we take our child and go to our club and practice more tennis. It is much better.' So he practiced only tennis, and at age 14 he stopped getting better. He plays so simple, so mechanical -- without combinations and feeling. He is very predictable."
Breskvar encourages an all-court game, with particular emphasis on the style for which a given player is suited by physique and personality.
"We take all the children to a medical center and make an X-ray here," he said, pointing to the wrist, "so we can see how tall they will be when they grow up. We can tell within two centimeters. We did this also with Steffi and Boris. This is very important, because Boris was small when he was 9 years old, but since I know he is going to be 190 centimeters (6-foot-3), I must practice a lot of service and net with him. If I know someone is going to be 166 or 168 (about 5-foot-6), we must practice a lot of topspin and groundstrokes."
Despite his diminutive size, Becker already was aggressive the first time Breskvar saw him, lunging and diving and making the horizontal leaps at the net that have become a trademark from the grass at Wimbledon to less forgiving hard courts.
"We wrote to all the clubs in the region that the federation was searching for talent. We do this three or four times a year. In Heidelberg, there were about 22 children, and Boris was one," Breskvar remembered. "I played with each one 20 minutes. I play hard balls, to test them, because if I am playing only easy balls, all I can see is how many lessons they have. I am not interested in that. I want to give them impossible balls, new situations, on the wrong foot, to see how they move, think, react. This is only way you can judge potential.
"Boris tried for everything, but his technique was not so good -- tennis or jumping. He didn't know how to roll. Knees and elbows scraped, blood everywhere. I said, 'Hey, stop, don't do this. You hurt yourself.' He said, 'No, no, it's OK,' and again he does it. I liked him from the first moment, but I stopped the session because I was afraid he would break some bones. I told him, 'OK, in two days you can come to the center and begin training with me,' but I thought to myself, first I must teach him first to jump properly."
Breskvar ordered gym mats, which still hang on the walls alongside the center's three indoor courts, and taught Becker how to land like an acrobat.
"After, I encouraged him to jump," said Breskvar. "This is his personality and important part of his game, for three reasons. First, he can reach more balls. More important is the psychological effect. When Boris jumps and gets the ball, the next time the opponent thinks, 'I must play exactly on the line.' He tries to hit into an area half as small, and that is very difficult, and often he is hitting out. The other advantage is this jumping is very attractive for the spectators, and pretty soon they are all on Boris' side. This is a great plus."
Graf has improved her volley, but favors playing from the backcourt, winning with a lethal topspin forehand and quickness and concentration that are almost as intimidating. She combines the strength and athleticism of Martina Navratilova, whom she succeeded as the dominant force in the women's game, with the mental toughness of Chris Evert, who withered opponents with laser-beam groundstrokes and brain waves.
"Steffi is the fastest player on the circuit," Navratilova said after losing the Wimbledon final. "She's a sprinter, a track and field athlete, more or less."
Breskvar begs to differ: "People often send outstanding runners to me on the basis that a good runner also makes a good tennis player," he wrote in his book. "Now footwork is important in tennis, but it is only one requirement among many. I can't remember a single outstanding young runner who has turned into a really good tennis player. In most cases it is ball sense that is lacking. On the other hand, I have only rarely been disappointed by good handball, football or basketball players."
He remembered the first time Graf picked up a plastic field hockey stick and joined in one of his post- practice scrimmages: "The others looked on in astonishment as she stopped, dribbled and hit the ball as if she had practiced the game for years."
Graf has outstanding hand-eye coordination, reflexes and racket control to go with her speed afoot. She loves basketball, but said she was disappointed that Breskvar wouldn't let her play soccer "because I could easily get injured." Breskvar said that tests showed Graf had weak ankles, for which trainer Erko Prull designed a special exercise program. She still works on conditioning with Prull, whom she calls "a very good friend of our family."
Graf has lost only seven matches the past 24 months -- to Navratilova in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1987, to Gabriela Sabatini twice and Pam Shriver once last year, and to Sabatini and Arantxa Sanchez this year, the latter in the final of the French Open, ending Graf's streak of five straight Grand Slam titles. Still, many tennis experts think she could improve 20 percent if she lowered the toss on her serve, which practically dusts the clouds, and learned to hit over her backhand more the way she does on her forehand, rather than reverting so often to a defensive slice.
It is difficult to make major changes when you are the Grand Slam and Olympic champion and a heroine in your homeland, but Breskvar made an interesting observation in his book:
"Steffi Graf has always relied heavily on strokes which she is absolutely sure of. This is of course perfectly correct in a match, but it did cause problems during her early training, when small adjustments often needed to be made. It always took ages to convince Steffi of the need for such changes. She held obstinately to any stroke which had given her success in the past. Sometimes it even ended in tears, simply because she refused to acknowledge that it was all in her best interests. Not until she was fully convinced would she seriously apply herself to the task of learning the new technique. But when she did, she set about it with such enthusiasm that she was bound to succeed."
It was in large part because their ambition was so similar that Breskvar had Becker hit with Graf, who to this day practices only against men.
"Boris was not the worst of the boys, like he says, but he was not very, very good," Breskvar said. "Steffi was the best girl, but almost two years younger than Boris. They practiced together sometimes, but not a lot. This was better training for Steffi than Boris. I liked him to play with older, stronger boys. It is important to find the right sparring partner -- somebody who is a little bit better, but not too much."
Graf remembers hitting with Becker, and realizes now that they have some similarities. "Temperamentally, yes," she said. "I have always been somebody who criticized myself a lot. When I didn't play well, I was getting mad. Boris was the same."
At the time, though, she didn't sense how much alike they were. "Anyway, we were kids," she said. "At that age, nobody really expected Boris would become the player he is. They thought I had much more chance."
What gave Breskvar a vision of the future was that Becker, like Graf, had uncompromising determination. One of the coach's friends manufactured Capri-Sun, a fruit-juice drink made in Heidelberg, which became the unofficial currency of training wagers.
"Boris would ask all the time, 'How many will you give me if I win?' " Breskvar recalled. "He was already a real professional. It was incredible. The more drinks at stake, the better he was playing. When he was 14 or 15, I was still stronger than he was, but we had good matches -- 6-3 or 6-4 every set. One day he asked, 'How many drinks will you give me if I beat you?' I said, 'The whole box.' He was trying like a madman, and he beat me, first time. Boris is a born competitor."
This begs a question that is widely debated, within Germany and abroad: Was the emergence of Graf and Becker from the same corner of a country without much previous tennis tradition a quirk of history or the result of a program capable of producing more like them?
Becker said at Wimbledon it was a "fairy tale," so improbable that they will be grandmother and grandfather before their countrymen realize what they have accomplished. Graf agreed: "What else can you call it? I mean, you can't build up two players like that. I don't see it happening again. It's just luck, coincidence."
"They are great talents. Without talents, you cannot work. But I also think that we have done a lot with those players," he said. "You ask Mr. Graf, it is only him. This is difficult. But I think this center was very important. It was the first in Germany, and without the opportunity to practice every day without paying one Deutschmark, over eight years, it would be very, very difficult."
The chief coach of the German Tennis Federation calculated that Becker's court time, coaching and travel as a junior had been subsidized to the tune of $500,000.
"It is too much money for most families," Breskvar said. "We pay everything. This is very important. A champion must be born with talent, but he must also have the environment. You can have a great natural talent for skiing, but if you live in the Sahara, you cannot win an Olympic gold medal in skiing. This is the same thing. We have a lot of talents in Germany, but many of them live far away, 200 or 300 kilometers. They play tennis there, but not so professional as here. They don't have the coaching and the opportunities, so they do not become Graf and Becker."
Good genes and God-given gifts need to be nurtured. Raw potential needs to be recognized, molded, motivated.
"Boris was not the best in Germany when he was 12, 13, 14. He was about No. 10," Breskvar reminded. "But when our federation was deciding where to put the money, I told our president, 'I think Boris will be the best. We try with him.' I don't think it would have happened without our help. There are so many players now, a champion must be something special, and he must be very well managed. The times are over when talent alone will rise to the top."
Says Tiriac: "Boris Breskvar is a guy who had, and has, very good kids, so the results prove that he knows what he is doing.....Boris and Steffi emerging from the same area at the same time? That is an accident with ingredients that helped. Like tennis courts to play (on). Like parents connected with tennis. Like Breskvar to discover and develop the talent. If there are no courts and coaches, it is impossible to recognise a gift for tennis."
Outside, girls with tennis rackets tied to their bicycles rode past pens of chickens, rabbits and other animals at the German equivalent of 4-H camp. Beneath the overhead gondolas that transport the makings of cement over vineyards, sunflower fields and forests to the factory, two toddlers were tossing a tennis ball.
Becker said after leading his country past the United States, into the finals of the Davis Cup, which it won in Sweden last winter and will defend against the same opponent at home in December, that tennis has become bigger than sport in West Germany. It is a positive symbol of patriotic pride for which guilt-wracked Germans have been searching since World War II.
"I think with both of our success, it's a huge thing," Graf concurred. "The German people see each other in us. They say, 'What they are doing, that's Germany.' Maybe because of the history behind us, it's a good thing. And the sports-wise, I think there is going to be even bigger development in tennis the next four, five, six years. You see boys and girls playing tennis in the streets now, whereas a couple of years ago it was only soccer."
The Baden tennis centre where Becker and Graf hit against each other as kids - must be recognised either as the setting of an extraordinary fairy tale, an "accident of history," or as a contemporary cradle of champions.