It’s been one heck of a ride for Boris Becker. In the Eighties, he was the precocious prodigy who bombed his way to a Wimbledon title at just 17 years of age. In the Nineties, he was a stalwart, slugging it out with the likes of Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, claiming the World Number 1 ranking and winning three more Grand Slam titles.
By the time he retired in 1999, he had six Slams to his name, and, perhaps a bit bored, Becker tried his hand at everything: British TV quiz shows, poker tournaments and something called Boris Becker TV. For ten years he helped anchor the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon, providing the kind of colorful, swashbuckling commentary that seemed appropriate for someone who played the game the way he did. There’s a reason his nickname was “Boom Boom,” after all.
Becker began the next phase of his career in December 2013, when he went to work with Novak Djokovic. It’s been a partnership that’s paid off handsomely. Already an icon as a player, Boris the coach helped craft arguably the greatest season in modern men’s tennis. In 2015, Djokovic made 15 straight finals and won 11 titles – including three Grand Slams and a record six Masters 1000 trophies – en route to an 82-6 mark.
Can he do it again in 2016? With the Australian Open underway, Becker spoke with Rolling Stone about his star pupil, taking time to enjoy last year’s amazing run and how he deals with Federer fans.
How happy were you with Novak’s performance in Doha? No sets lost, and then that fantastic performance in the final against Rafael Nadal – it was a pretty good start to 2016.
Well, it was the first tournament of the year. Novak had a proper winter break, only played tennis for a couple of weeks, so you’re never quite sure where you stand. Fortunately for all of us, he started well, and he played one of his best matches in the final against Rafa. You know, you have days when you see the ball very clearly, you’re in tune with your body, your technique, your emotions. The final was one of those days, so it was a perfect start to the season.
After such a dominant 2015, what was the focus of the team during the offseason?
Well, first of all, to sit back and enjoy it a little bit. You don’t have seasons like that every year. In this race, you sometimes forget that when a final is Sunday night, you have to take the night flight afterwards, and the next tournament starts on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Sometimes you forget to breathe out.
It’s been two full seasons with Novak now. When you first started, how did you perceive the tennis world’s reaction to the partnership?
Well, I was around tennis doing commentary for more than 10 years, but I wasn’t coaching anybody. I thought the first impressions were a little bit skeptical. People were surprised, wondering if I knew the game of today well enough to give a player like Novak the right advice.
Obviously, it took a couple of tournaments for the both of us to get used to one another. And I had hip surgery also, so I was not with him all the time. But I think ever since the  French Open, even though he lost the final to Rafa, I thought that was a good tournament. And obviously, winning Wimbledon afterwards, in the final against Roger in five sets. Ever since then, I think we really clicked. To the surprise of a few so-called experts.
So has that perception changed?
I think I get the respect that I deserve. I think people realized that the Djokovic-Becker combination really works. I also think it’s good for the game that you have players who used to be the best back in the locker room, back involved on the court with the younger players. Even though Stefan Edberg isn’t a part of team Federer anymore, he was with him for two years. I just saw [former French Open champion and World No. 1] Carlos Moyá working out with Milos Raonic. I think it’s good for the game.
Did you ever imagine this partnership with Novak would work so well?
I obviously thought we had a lot of potential. Obviously we had a clear game plan. But not every game plan functions well. It takes a few tournaments, a couple of weeks, a couple of months to really get used to one another. Having played a few Grand Slam finals myself, I was thrown back to the days when I played. I think Novak benefits from that, that I feel in tune with his emotions when he’s entering the last part of a Grand Slam.
In your mind, what is the one aspect of Novak’s game that has improved the most since you joined his team?
I think his overall look at the matches. I think he plays more aggressive, he wins the points faster, therefore the matches are shorter, and he’s still fresh in the semifinal and final. Whereas I felt before, when I was actually doing TV commentary for some of his matches, now and then he would lose a set or two for no reason. And I feel like that has changed. I feel he really is on the court with a clear purpose, with a clear game plan and he’s able to execute it.
Of course, it depends on the draw – no opponent is easy, don’t get me wrong – but if he has a chance to close a set 6-3, why don’t you do it? And if you have a chance to go up a double break, and win the set 6-1 or 6-2, why don’t you do it? If you want to practice some more, we can always go on the practice court afterwards. I think he really got that.
Novak was very good in 2014, but in 2015 he was great. In your opinion, what made last year such a spectacular season?
I think that first of all, it all starts with him. I think that he is finally at an age when he is mature enough to understand his part in tennis history. I think his family life is settled. I think he has a wonderful team around him that understands what they individually have to do. So I think the whole puzzle is complete at the moment.
You famously tweeted that Federer’s 2006 season was better than Djokovic’s 2015. Why is that?
Well, percentage-wise, I believe that Federer won a couple more matches, and lost one fewer. At the end of last year, you had all these experts comparing, you know, the greatest individual seasons of all time, and me, as a coach of Novak, I was obviously a bit biased. So I wanted to be neutral and say that I think in his prime, Roger was very unique and won as much as Novak. And percentage-wise, he actually had a year in which he won more and lost fewer. And that’s really all it was.
Maybe I should add a little bit of context: because I’m the coach of Novak, and I do everything I can to make my player better, some of these Federer fans that used to like me as a player don’t like me so much anymore. And I wanted to give them flowers, to say, “Listen, your man isn’t that bad either. Your man had years when he was spectacular.” That’s really what it came down to.
You played against two of the best returners of serve in history: Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. For a few years now, Novak has been put in that conversation as well. How does Novak compare to Jimmy and Andre?
Well, back in the old days, you had more serve-and-volleyers. So returners almost had a better target. Nowadays, players don’t come to the net as often, so great returners have a more difficult time, because the opponent stays back, even though he serves well. Obviously, for a returner to be at his best, he needs to win the point with a passing shot, or he needs to win the point with the return immediately. That was the case in the Eighties and the Nineties. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to judge, because as I said, the return is the beginning of a rally most of the time.
What makes Novak so adept at returning serve?
He has a good eye. He anticipates well. And he has a good return technique. Where most players choose to slice or block the ball back, he actually takes a swing at it. Meaning, he comes from defense to offense starting on the return. I think that if you have the timing, that puts you in the front position right away.
You mentioned that, at his best, Sampras would have beaten Federer. How do you think a duel between the best Sampras and the best Djokovic would go?
Well, it’s difficult to say, because it depends on the surface. Obviously, Novak would beat him on clay. He most likely would have beaten him on hard courts. But on the grass, I still think Pete is the most difficult player to beat for anybody, so he would be ahead. Back then, he would go through weeks without losing his serve.
The closest someone has come to that was maybe Federer this past summer. He was barely facing break points.
And that was really my point. Because everybody obviously commented about his service games during the US Open, but if you think about the great servers of the Nineties and Eighties, that was the norm. That was what we did. And if you can’t get close to the serve, if you can’t break a serve, how hard is it to win a match? You always end up in the tiebreak, and that’s Russian roulette – the better server usually has the edge. That was the problem playing against Pete.
I actually think that Roger’s serve today, with the volley behind it, the placement, it’s very difficult to break. Obviously [Ivo] Karlovic serves more aces. You have Raonic probably serving harder. But the complete game of Roger makes him the best server nowadays.
Looking ahead to 2016, what do you think will be Novak’s biggest challenge?
He’s the defending champion at the Australian Open, so that’s the next big goal. And that’s it. We can’t look too far ahead. Tennis is a very fast game – things are changing quickly. Right now, we’re not thinking of Key Biscayne, or the French Open or Wimbledon. Now it’s the Australian Open. It’s Melbourne. And that’s it – that has to be the mind-set.
Who do you see as Novak’s biggest challengers in 2016?
I honestly think the next opponent is the toughest challenger. I really think that some of the tournaments that Novak has won, he’s beaten amazing players in the finals, but some of the second or third rounds were far more difficult than the final. So I don’t go by names, I go by performances. Whoever Novak plays next in Australia, he’ll be the toughest challenger.
Of course, you have the world rankings, and you have Roger, and you have Andy [Murray], Rafa, Stan [Wawrinka], everybody else. But it really depends. You gotta get through the first rounds, the round of 16, the quarterfinals. Once you’re in semifinal, or a final, the tournament has been good already. You take it from there. But really, it’s all about the next match.