Tennis legend Boris Becker has spoken of his fear of being killed during his eight months in prison in the UK, but insists the overall experience, including small food portions and no alcohol or cigarettes, was good for his health.
The former Wimbledon champion looked slimmer and healthier than the last time he appeared in public, in April, before he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for concealing assets worth £2.5m. He was speaking for the first time since his release from prison and deportation to Germany, via a friend’s private jet, about a week ago.
Becker told broadcaster Sat1 in an emotional interview shown in Germany on Tuesday night that he is a “more intelligent and humble” man than the one who went to prison.
He said he lost 7 kilograms of body weight largely due to what he described as insufficient food portions, saying, “I felt hungry for the first time in my life.” He added that not drinking alcohol also helped.
The German-born national said he was surprised, within 10 days of his arrival, to be appointed to teach mathematics and English to fellow prisoners – “although I asked myself how can I teach English to English?” But he admitted that his English was too poor to understand many of the “lousy” insults and abuses the prisoners hurled at each other, especially at night.
He took lessons in Stoicism and ended up tutoring the other prisoners in philosophy, also helped give physical fitness instruction, and acted “something of a father figure”.
Baker recalled how three men, Jake, Russell and Bailey, appointed to Huntercombe Prison, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, as ‘listeners’ to facilitate new prisoners’ entry into the daily challenges of prison life, took him under their wing. . He said: I will never forget them. They saved my life.”
They got involved after an argument with another inmate, a convicted murderer, who Baker said threatened to kill him. Becker broke down describing how the man later came forward to apologize. “He threw himself on the ground and hugged my leg. I picked him up and hugged him and told him I had a lot of respect for him.”
He described experiencing “a sense of camaraderie like never before. You put everything in one hat, you share clothes, sugar and salt.” At fifty-five years old For his birthday on November 22, he was given three chocolate brownies, which he shared with his fellow prisoners.
Baker told interviewer Steven Gatien that the dozens of letters he was receiving from friends and fans each day helped keep his spirits up, and he insisted he would answer every single one of them over Christmas. He broke down again when describing his gratitude for receiving a three-page letter from rival and compatriot Michael Stich, who famously defeated him in straight sets in the 1991 Wimbledon final.
He said the visits were more problematic. When Liverpool Football Club manager Jurgen Klopp, whom he described as a good friend, tried to arrange a visit for him, Governor Huntercombe refused the request, as he was transferred in May, due to fears for Klopp. Safety, according to Becker.
He said his former coach and agent, Ion Tiriac, had been rejected three times on similar grounds. Baker was told that anyone associated with a lot of money was at risk of being kidnapped. “They Googled someone like Teriac and saw how rich he was and immediately knew he would be in danger,” he said.
SAT1 described Wandsworth Prison in London, where Baker spent the first few weeks of his sentence, as “a very poor place to be held” even by British prison standards, with “a reputation for violence, overcrowding and filth as well as a chronic vermin problem”.
In a report accompanying the interview, SAT1 said the decision to let Baker out after eight months was “due to a lack of room in UK prisons”. She added, “They are happy to get rid of any of the foreign prisoners they can by deporting them.”
Baker described how his heart sank when he was sentenced in April by Judge Taylor at Southwark Crown Court, who accused him of showing no remorse. He said he spent every day in the three weeks between his conviction on four counts under the Bankruptcy Act, and his sentencing, visiting a church near his home in Knightsbridge where he prayed for a short jail term.
Only twice does he mention his status as a tennis icon and the effect it might have had on his experience. He said the jurors who found him guilty were too young to remember his three victories at Wimbledon. He thought that if they had known him it might have influenced their decision. When he entered the prison, he described his “fear, going into a corner, not daring to look anyone in the eye. But then I realized some of them had recognized me: ‘It’s Boris Becker! ‘ Then I thought: Well, that might actually help me.”
Talking about his financial problems and the crime of hiding his assets, Baker said he had failed to pay enough attention to financial matters since he started earning from playing tennis as a teenager in the 1980s. “I was never in it for the money,” he said. “Sometimes I even forgot to collect my prize money.” After his sports career ended, he made the mistake of “wanting to live like you used to. But you don’t earn as much as you did. Then there’s taxes, divorces, childcare… Before I knew it, I was making very little money to cover costs.”
He said he would not have survived without the support of his four children or his girlfriend, Lillian de Carvalho Montero. I sat on the sidelines throughout the interview.
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