Great hope of tennis in the late 70s, eight times champion of Belgium, Bernard Boileau saw his rise to the very high level stopped by heroin and alcohol. A sad Belgian story.

Great hope of tennis in the late 70s, eight times champion of Belgium, Bernard Boileau saw his rise to the highest level stopped by heroin and alcohol. A Belgian rise and fall for a working class kid that failed to manage his early entrance into the great world of the yellow ball.


"Bernard has the best backhand of the tour. In Europe, he's one of my biggest rival." This is what Yannick Noah said about him. At the time, in the late 70s, a new generation of great tennis hopes was emerging on the old continent and it was a Belgian beanpole that was dominating this little world: a man called Bernard Boileau who was winning his duels against an admiring Noah but also against the young Ivan Lendl. And always with an almost unbelievable ease. Without even working as hard in training of his opponents, the native of Liege won matches after matches thanks to a full range of shots and a great intelligence in his choices, taking a malicious pleasure in trapping his opponents. The flamboyant Boileau was making the show for an enamoured public - especially the female audience since the champion was also a handsome fellow... - and eventually started annoying some of the competition, jealous of this extraordinary rough talent. Born in 1959 in a very humble background, he was a poached at 17 by the most prestigious tennis Institute in Belgium: the Uccle Leopold Club, on the outskirts of Brussels. His life then took another dimension, for better or for worse.


Four appearances at Roland Garros, an ATP title in doubles


The best parts were many the titles. At 19, in 1978, he was crowned Belgian champion for the first time. Until 1985, he enriched his prize list of seven new national titles in singles, not counting the many victories in doubles and mixed doubles. Boileau also discovered the international tour, participating four times in the main table at Roland Garros and three times at Wimbledon, not counting all the minor tournaments where he succeeded a few good performances to eventually become 42nd in the world in 1983. That season, he also won also his only ATP title: the Open de Nice in doubles with the Czechoslovak Libor Pimek. A year 1983 in the form of climax for a champion with a life already quite dissolute outside the tour and that started to get out of hand from that moment. Because the arrival of Bernard Boileau in the big world of Belgian then world tennis also had a dark side. Deprived from frameworks and reference points in this new life away from his working-class origins, the young man thoroughly enjoyed his growing fame, easy money and hypnotic physique. Every night, he went out and consumed himself, succeeding by his sole talent to compensate for a lifestyle which wasn’t very appropriate for a tennis champion.


A shoot every day except before the matches


During a training camp in Florida, Boileau first discovered marijuana then a "friend" made him try heroin. A first fatal decision for a man who was already quite fragile mentally. In 1983, the Belgian became an addict and started injected heroin every three days, sometimes daily, but never at tournaments, as he has always said, even if he readily admits his addiction today, as in this interview given to the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure in 2007: « If one day I slipped into artificial paradises, it's because I never had the appropriate environment. Overnight, thanks to my talent at tennis and the good results I had at the time, I started being treated like royalty with money flowing, while I was coming from a working class background where my pocket money was a joke. All this makes you vulnerable." Despite the influence of drugs and the ravages it had on him, Boileau became champion of Belgium two more times in 1984 and 1985.


Three months in jail and the outstretched hand of Yannick Noah


His game then deteriorated to the point of having to hang the racquets in 1988 at not even 29 years old. If he managed to beat his heroin habit, he made up for it with a massive consumption of alcohol. In 1990, the former champion was sentenced to 3 years in jail, including 6 months with no remission for robbery with violence. He finally served 3 months. Yannick Noah, his former opponent, gave him a hand by putting him responsible for the Belgian branch of "Fête le Mur" his association for the practice of tennis in deprived neighbourhoods. On trial again in 2000 for contempt to bailiff this time, Boileau would have now regained some stability in his life, far from the glory and excesses of his youth. At least he made his own the famous phrase: burning the candle at both ends.


By Régis Delanoë