The tennis legend Boris Becker has spoken of his fear of being murdered during the eight months he spent in prison in the UK but insisted on the overall experience, including small food portions and no alcohol or cigarettes, has been good for his health.
The former Wimbledon champion appeared considerably slimmed down and healthier than the last time he appeared in public, in April, before he was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for concealing £2.5m of assets. He was speaking for the first time since his release from prison and deportation to Germany, via a friend’s private jet, almost a week ago.
Becker told the broadcaster Sat 1 in an emotional interview shown in Germany on Tuesday night that he was a “shrewder and humbler” man than the person who had gone to prison.
He said he had lost 7kg in body weight largely due to what he described as insufficient portions of food, saying: “I had a feeling of hunger for the first time in my life.” He added that not drinking alcohol had also helped.
The German native said he had been surprised, within 10 days of arriving, to be appointed to teach maths and English to fellow inmates – “even though I asked myself how is it that I am teaching English to English people?” But he admitted that his English had been too poor to understand much of the “abysmal” swearing and abuse that prisoners hurled at each other, particularly at night.
He had taken lessons in Stoicism and ended up instructing other prisoners in the philosophy, and had also helped give fitness instruction, acting “like something of a father figure”.
Becker recalled how three men, Jake, Russell and Billy, appointed at Huntercombe prison, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, as so-called “listeners” to ease new inmates into the daily challenges of prison life had taken him under their wing . He said: “I will never forget them. They saved my life.”
They had intervened after an altercation with a fellow inmate, a convicted murderer, who said Becker had threatened to kill him. Becker broke down as he described how the man had come later to apologise. “He threw himself on the floor and hugged my legs. I picked him up and embraced him and told him I had great respect for him.”
He described experiencing a “sense of camaraderie like never before. You put everything into one hat, sharing clothes, sugar, salt.” On his 55th birthday on 22 November, he was given three chocolate cakes, which he shared with fellow inmates.
Becker told the interviewer Steven Gätjen that the dozens of letters he had received from friends and fans every day had helped to keep up his morale, and insisted that he would answer every one of them over Christmas. He broke down again when he described his gratitude at getting a three-page letter from his rival and compatriot Michael Stich, who famously beat him in straight sets in the Wimbledon final of 1991.
Visits were more problematic, he said. When the Liverpool football club manager, Jürgen Klopp, whom he described as a good friend, had tried to arrange to visit him, the request was turned down by the governor of Huntercombe, where he had been transferred in May, owing to fears for Klopp’s safety, according to Becker.
A request by his former coach and agent Ion Tiriac was turned down three times for similar reasons, he said. Becker was told that anyone associated with a lot of money was considered to be in danger of being kidnapped. “They Googled someone like Tiriac and saw how rich he was and immediately they consider he would be in danger,” he said.
Sat 1 described Wandsworth prison in London, where Becker spent the first few weeks of his sentence, as a “particularly bad place to be incarcerated” even by the standards of UK prisons, with a “reputation for violence, overcrowding and filth as well as a chronic mining problem”.
In a report accompanying the interview, Sat 1 said the decision to let Becker out after eight months was “due to the fact there is no space in UK prisons”. It added: “They are glad to get rid of any of the foreign prisoners they can by deporting them”.
Becker 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 a jury finding him guilty of four charges under the Insolvency Act, and his sentencing, visiting a church near his home in Knightsbridge where he prayed for a short jail term.
Only twice did he mention his status as a tennis icon and the effect it may have had on his experience. The jurors who had found him guilty, he said, were too young to have any memory of his three Wimbledon victories. Had they known him it might have had an influence on their decision, he believed. When he entered jail he described “being scared, and moving 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!’ And then I thought: OK, that might actually help me.”
Addressing his financial issues and the crime of hiding his assets, Becker said he had failed to pay enough attention to money matters ever since he had begun earning from his tennis as a teenager in the 1980s. “I was never in it for the money,” he said. “Sometimes I even forgot to pick up my prize money.” After his sporting career was over, he had made the mistake of “wanting to live as I had before. But you don’t earn as much as you did. Then there are taxes, divorces, childcare … before I knew it I was earning too little to cover my costs.”
He said he would not have survived had it not been for the support of his four children or his girlfriend, Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro. She sat on the sidelines throughout the interview.