Munich isn’t just a stop on the ATP circuit. In 1989, the german city hosted the BNP Paribas Davis Cup semi-final, between West Germany and the United States. A city which, during three days, saw Andre Agassi knock out his own team by himself, crumble against Boris Becker, almost want to kill himself and be accused of being drunk on the court. Bad Trip.
The taverns of Munich are packed with people on this Sunday, July 23rd, 1989. People are drinking 1 liter-pints of beer. They’re singing, laughing, and celebrating in a huge uproar Boris Becker’s win in the Davis Cup semi-final. Around them, however, one man has a lot of trouble joining the party. « These laughs are giving me the chills », he will go on to explain a few years later in his autobiography. Spearhead of the american team, Andre Agassi is, on that night, Boris Becker’s victim and, de facto, a not yet, but almost reunited West Germany with it’s Eastern neighbor is ecstatic. He has just been defeated in five sets after a match played over two days. As usual, nothing was announcing such a scenario. « I can’t wait to take part in it, because it’s not about me, but about the country. I imagine that it’s a bit like being part of a team, I don’t think the trip will be a nice excursion », he explained before walking onto the court. Yet, very quickly, the first rallies look like a walk in the Park. Becker is a mere shadow of his former self. But a shadow above anyone else. « He’s almost considered like a God in West Germany, and his fans are making a huge noise ; twelve thousand Germans are cheering for every single shot of his and booing me, remembers Agassi in his book. However, it’s not unsettling, because I’m in a zone. Maybe not in the zone, but in my zone. Moreover, I promised myself a few months earlier that I would never lose against Becker, and I’m close to keeping my promise. »
« First class free-jazz »
Agassi is willing to keep his word and is quickly leading by two sets to none. The moment chosen to interrupt the match. At exactly midnight. It’s the rule in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup. The next day, the American is back at it and is serving for the match, at 6 games to 5 in the third set. As the score is 15-30, Becker runs 100 meters to transform one of Agassi’s drop shot into a winning lob. And to gift himself with two balls to get even at 6 games all. A few minutes later, during the tie-break, « Boom Boom » needs four volleys to conclude on the 8th point. His arms go up in the air and the crowd is roaring, the confrontation becomes a mind game. And Agassi has suddenly forgotten the rules. « I’m losing my focus, and my confidence immediately after, he explains. I lose a game. During the change of ends, I’m walking towards my chair, completely discouraged. I immediately notice German officials mumbling a few words. They are asking me to get back onto the court. The match is not over. Becker’s laughing. The crowd erupts in laughter. I walk back on the court, my eyes are hurting. » The last two sets are played with a rare intensity. The tempo is high. « Some first-class free jazz », as would go on to describe it Boris Becker in his own autobiography. But the quality of Agassi’s returns of serve finally won’t be enough to overtake Becker’s huge serves. The German has made a winning come-back. Final score : 6-7 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-4. For Becker, this is another Homeric battle. For Agassi, another defeat in 5 sets, as at the time, he hasn’t won a single match played in 5 sets. Which doesn’t stop the two players from leaving each other with a big hug. In Becker’s own words : « After a match in which you’ve poured your whole heart, a simple handshake would have seemed inadequate. »
« He accused me of being drunk »
Back at the hotel. Agassi sits on his room’s balcony. Alone, he contemplates the city. His head empty, he starts to set fire to little things. Paper, clothes, shoes. « For years, it has been one of my secret methods to face the situations of extreme stress. I don’t do it consciously. It’s a sort of impulse which takes a hold of me and makes my hand reach for the matches. » Then he sticks his head outside again. Watches the taverns of Munich getting filled with people. He then walks outside, and arrives at a big stone-paved bridge. Down there, he hears a river flowing. He stops in the middle of the bridge. There is no one around. « You don’t hear the chants, nor the laughs anymore. Only the noise of the river. » Fixing the stream, he then wonders : « What if I was bad ? ». Even worse : « I think I’d want to die. » He will then need all the help from his staff and family and friends to push him, the next day, to set another foot on the court. Agassi has to face Carl-Uwe Steeb, in the match of the last chance. Physically and morally exhausted, he’s got a tactic in mind : to attack on his weakness, the backhand, but on his rhythm. « If I didn’t force him to play on my own rhythm, he had to create his own, and his backhand would be incredibly weakened. His main flaw would become obvious. Whereas if he adapted to mine, he would be able to play sliced balls which remain low on this quick surface. I make him look better than he is because I’m hitting harder than I should, wanting to be perfect. » With a cordial smile, Steeb accepts the American’s gifts, and looks like he’s in a good day. Advantaged by Agassi’s backhands, he’s having a great time. Before logically heading towards a victory in four sets, qualifying Germany for the final. On the yankee side, failing to engage in self-criticism, Agassi is pointed as the man responsible for the defeat. « After leaving the dressing room, our captain accused me of being drunk during the match. » Possible, when we know that when he was 12, his coach offered him a german beer after each win. But never after a defeat…