As a three-time Wimbledon champion, Boris Becker should be accustomed to media attention. Apart from being one of Germany's most photogenic personalities, he is paid millions by companies like DaimlerChrysler and Tag Heuer to be their celebrity presence. Yet when a court in Miami began considering the tennis star's child-custody battle with his estranged wife Barbara, he rushed to have the case closed to the throng of reporters waiting outside. In the end, Judge Maynard Gross ruled in favor of Barbara and agreed to open the proceeding to TV cameras, which broadcast it live to eager audiences in Germany. Boris' reluctance to have his private life played out on TV screens around the world may explain last week's announcement that he and his wife had decided to try again to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. "We're very, very close to resolving this matter," said Samuel Burstyn, one of Barbara's lawyers.
The Beckers' divorce has been huge news in Germany since the Dec. 5 announcement that their seven-year fairy-tale marriage was ending. The celebrity couple cited the pressures of being "rich and famous." The Beckers had been widely hailed in Germany for setting a positive example of interracial marriage in a country that is still often intolerant of outsiders. Barbara, 33, an actress and model who holds an American passport, is the daughter of a German mother and a former U.S. Army officer.
Shortly after the separation announcement, Barbara left Germany for Miami, where the couple own a $3 million condominium on exclusive Fisher Island. She filed a petition for custody of their two children — Noah, 6, and Elias, 1 — and financial support, claiming that Boris had abandoned her. He responded by filing for divorce in Munich, his hometown, accusing his estranged wife of kidnapping the two children. Boris' lawyers said they wanted the kids returned to their father under the Hague Convention on child abduction.
Appearing on the witness stand in a grey suit with a baby-blue shirt and a tie, Boris pleaded to keep the proceedings secret. "I am afraid for the lives of my children," he told the judge, adding that the youngsters had been the target of abduction threats in the past. He also warned that his endorsement contracts contained confidentiality agreements that would be broken if details of his income were discussed in open court. His wife's lawyers maintained that the kidnap threat was only a pretext to lower the settlement amount and complained that Boris' "formidable paramilitary staff" had intimidated his wife. In the end the judge ordered the address and phone numbers of the children as well as commercial trade secrets sealed, but he otherwise opened the case to the media.
The Becker drama comes at a time of tension between Germany and the U.S. over child custody. In some 50 cases, American parents in divorce proceedings have been unsuccessful in getting legal access to their children after they were taken to Germany. During President Clinton's visit to Berlin last year, the issue was raised with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The two sides formed a working group that has since met three times, but so far none of the outstanding cases has been resolved. "The German system is unjust," said Esther Neujahr, an American living in Germany who finally won a divorce in a German court last April after waiting four years. "It takes too long to make a decision about child custody, to set a date for a hearing and to finalize a divorce."
Judge Gross ordered that neither of the Beckers could remove their children from the U.S. while the case was still pending in his court. Although Barbara was reported to have signed a pre-nuptial agreement providing for a $2.5 million payout in the event of divorce, German newspapers speculate that support payments before the official settlement would not be covered by the deal.
Regardless of how the trial ends, the legal maneuvering in Miami and Munich illustrates the gap that still exists between American and European courts on such emotional issues as divorce. Perhaps if nothing else, Becker v. Becker will help speed the work of the bilateral panel trying to resolve the tragedy of German-American child-custody cases.