Our vision of tennis stars often includes a vast opulence. There’s Maria Sharapova, earning $23 million. Or US Open winner Sloane Stephens pocketing $3.7 million and saying to a reporter, “Girl, did you see the check that lady handed me?” More recently, Roger Federer and Nike have been in negotiating combat over just how much the superstar is worth.
But there is a dark underside to this vision. Some of tennis’s most celebrated figures, who were at or near the top of the game, have fallen terribly into financial destitution or ruin. Gussie Moran, who became famous by wearing lace undergarments at Wimbledon, had a fabulous 15 minutes of fame, which she parlayed into a significant role in tennis. She would appear in exhibitions before the greats of the game would go on court on their nomadic tours from Tulsa to Akron. She was a phenom who dated wealthy Egyptians and Indian rajas. But then things fell apart. Ultimately she had to work a job at the Los Angeles Zoo. For years the great pioneer and pre-feminist lived alone in Hollywood with a couple of dozen cats.
Not unlike Moran, Althea Gibson, who was the first player of color to win a Grand Slam tournament (ultimately she won 11) and who also had a career as a golfer and a jazz singer, fell into poverty and lived an impoverished life substantially alone in New Jersey. The great Ken Rosewall, who’s now being celebrated 50 years after winning the 1968 French Open, suffered badly as the result of poor investments. Bjorn Borg, whose post-tennis companies had major problems, was reduced to selling his Wimbledon trophies in order to raise money. Fortunately John McEnroe came to the rescue. Since at least 2012, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario’s story has been one of tax evasion, mismanaged finances and tremendous family acrimony. Once worth $60 million, she now faces criminal complaints from Spanish banks.
Boris Becker earned $63 million during his tennis career and was once worth $160 million. More recently, though – despite a highly successful coaching stint leading Novak Djokovic to six Slam wins – he’s said to be anywhere from $3.8 million to $54 million in debt.
But Becker appears to have found a novel way of fighting off bankruptcy claims – by suddenly becoming a diplomat with immunity. Stranger still, Becker’s diplomat role is as a sport and culture attaché for the poor, embattled, crisis-strewn Central African Republic.
Becker was declared bankrupt in 2017 over money owed to London-based private bank Arbuthnot Latham, which is now pursuing him for “further assets.” He became Central African Republic’s sport and culture attaché to the EU in April of this year. His legal representative Ben Emmerson QC includes Julian Assange among past clients. Becker’s lawyers are arguing that his newfound diplomat role affords him “diplomatic immunity under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”
How did Boris become broke? Bad investments (in Nigerian oil?) and expensive relationship settlements played a role – he paid a multi-million dollar amount in 2001 towards living expenses for a child conceived in London’s Nobu restaurant. Currently his Wimbledon trophies and other sporting memorabilia are being sold online in an auction to raise funds for his creditors.