For two weeks each summer, the annual Lawn Tennis Association championship in Wimbledon, southwest London, becomes the scene of some intense, almost competitive, fruit eating. In the stands, tennis fans guzzle strawberries – around two million over the fortnight in 2015, drenched in 7,000 litres of cream and knocked back with 28,000 bottles of Lanson champagne. But on court another fruit is king: the banana.
Last year, 15,000 bananas were brought in for the players alone; given that there are a total of 256 competitors in the men’s and women’s singles tournaments that’s more than 50 per tennis player – or even more, given that most are knocked out in the early rounds. And the fruit’s dominance in the sport is thanks largely to one man, a Wimbledon legend who electrified the game in the 1980s: Boris Becker.
It was in July 1985 that Becker first grabbed the world’s attention. His flame-red hair and still gawky 17-year-old frame captured the imagination of tennis fans after his unexpected victory in the Wimbledon Finals. He became the youngest ever winner of the prestigious tournament, not to mention the first German and first unseeded player (a player that hasn’t been ranked in the top 16 by the organisers) to do so, and in the process established himself as the new star of the game.
Becker has described Wimbledon as the “Mount Everest” of tennis. To an unseeded player it is an almost insurmountable obstacle. And yet, in 1985 Becker scaled it at his first attempt, beating the 27-year-old, eighth-seeded Kevin Curren 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, in 28°C heat on Centre Court.
Things would never be the same again after Becker’s meteoric rise. His win marked the end of old buttoned-up Wimbledon and paved the way for the modern professional sport we know today. But along with the thrills and spills, the athletic, theatrical dives and seemingly impossible backhand returns, what Becker’s Wimbledon appearances are most remembered for is the way he ate bananas.
Boris Becker was born in Leimen, a town in the former West Germany on 22 November 1967. An only child, he started to play tennis at the age of eight at his local tennis centre, founded by his architect father. His fast, accurate serve and aggressive volleying at the net became the foundation of his game, earning him a certain reputation and the nickname “Boom Boom” Becker.
The year after his scorching Wimbledon debut, Becker returned to win again, defeating world number 1 Ivan Lendl in straight sets. He reached the Wimbledon Final a total of seven times in his career, winning three times in all.
During Becker’s decade of dominance (his last appearance in the Wimbledon Final was 1995), one of the most memorable images is of him scoffing bananas on Centre Court between sets. In many ways they are the perfect food for tennis players. They are portable and crucially speedy to unwrap. And the average 126g banana is also full of energy: there are 111 densely packed calories per fruit in three forms of carbohydrate (sucrose, glucose and fructose), plus a high concentration of potassium, which helps to prevent muscle cramps.
But Becker was not actually the first player to adopt the yellow fruit. The Australian Ken Rosewall was known to eat the odd banana on court in the 1960s, John McEnroe’s coach kept a bucket of them on court during training at his Port Washington academy in the 1970s, and Martina Navratilova adopted the banana in the early 1990s as a key weapon in her tennis armoury. But Becker was certainly the most flamboyant and successful player to brandish one in anger, and set the template for the likes of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams who have all been seen munching them on court.
Maria Sharapova was even embroiled in controversy during the US Open in 2006 when her father Yuri (who was also her coach) waved one at her as a reminder to eat something, which she duly did. Asked about the furore (coaching during a match was against the rules), Sharapova snapped: “I just won the US Open and you’re asking me about a banana.”
The British number 1 Andy Murray is an exception to Becker’s banana brigade. In his 2008 autobiography, Coming of Age, he admitted that he doesn’t much like them, writing: “To be honest, I think bananas are pathetic fruit… I’m more a peaches and plums sort of guy.” Yet Murray was seen eating bananas at the 2013 Australian Open, where he beat Roger Federer.
Off court, Becker's championing of the banana also carries deep political significance. For Germans, the banana was a symbol both of the country’s post-war division and later its unity; and it was a shorthand way of signalling the wealth of West Germany compared with the comparative poverty of the East.
Under Communism, the banana had been almost entirely missing from East Germany for 40 years (although in later years it was available around Christmas thanks to shipments from Cuba). In his 1992 memoir, former East German leader Erich Honecker wrote, “GDR citizens may not have always had bananas under socialism, but they could rely on employment and security.” When West Germans visited their family and friends in the East they would often bring bunches of the precious fruit as a house gift.
In West Germany, however, the banana was a symbol of strength and success. In July 1957, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stood outside the Bundestag brandishing a banana, which he described as “paradisiacal manna”. He had just returned from talks in Rome where he had secured a guarantee in the founding treaty of the European Economic Community (predecessor of the EU), that West Germans could import unlimited quantities of bananas tariff-free. “It represents the hope of many of us and a necessity for us all!” he declared.
When the Berlin Wall finally came down on 9 November 1989 – five years after Becker’s first Wimbledon triumph and only months after his third victory – the banana was an important symbol of reunification. Bumper stickers featuring two bananas forming the letter “D” for “Deutschland” appeared on cars along with slogans reading, “German Banana Republic, RIP”.
In the years since his retirement, Becker’s fruity influence has also spread well beyond tennis. In a recent interview, Matthew Bellamy, lead singer of the stadium-filling band Muse, revealed that he was a fan of the banana thanks to the German. “I eat bananas before every gig,” he said. “I picked up the ritual watching Boris Becker play tennis as a kid. When he won Wimbledon, he was always stuffing himself with bananas between games. I thought to myself: They must be a secret weapon.”