| CHASTENED: Boris Becker during his trial in Munich on Thursday. (AFP)
Munich: Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker was found guilty of tax evasion on Thursday but was spared jail by a German court which handed him a two-year suspended sentence and a hefty fine.
Becker, 34, whose heroics on the tennis court made him one of Germany’s biggest post-war celebrities, had sought leniency by paying $3 million that he owed last week, and by admitting in court on Wednesday he made a mistake by dodging tax.
On top of the suspended sentence, the Munich state court fined him 3,00,000 euros ($293,000), and ordered him to pay 2,00,000 euros more to charity plus the case costs, estimated at more than 100,000 euros.
“I’m happy and relieved that this chapter has finally been closed,” Becker said in a written statement.
“I am a free man and that is the most important thing. A very difficult phase of my life, full of problems, has now been ended.”
State prosecutors had demanded that Becker, who shot to prominence after winning the first of three Wimbledon titles in 1985 aged 17, be imprisoned for three years and six months for evading taxes and lying about where he lived.
He claimed residence in the tax haven of Monaco while actually staying in Munich between 1991 and 1993, they said. Becker earned about $25 million in prize money during his 16-year career and tens of millions more in endorsements.
The conviction on Thursday is the latest misfortune to befall Becker since his retirement from tennis in 1999, including a costly divorce, an admission he fathered a child with a Russian model and a string of failed business ventures.
“His confession in trial here was a mitigating factor,” Judge Huberta Knoeringer told the court, adding that the punishment was consistent with other sentences handed to tax dodgers who confessed.
A judge renowned for handing down tough sentences and herself an avid tennis player, Knoeringer added: “We all know the defendant as an excellent tennis player.”
Wearing a brown suit and matching tie, Becker appeared tense during the trial but gradually relaxed as the suspended sentence was read out.
“That means you have to report to the police, pay the fine and stay out of legal trouble for the next three full years,” Knoeringer told Becker.
“But don’t let me catch you back here again for anything to do with tax matters.”
Becker laughed for the first time and colour returned to his pale face. “Okay, it won’t happen,” he said with a smile, before shaking hands with the judge and leaving through a back exit.
He will nevertheless have a criminal record and be required to report his whereabouts to police. Should he break any laws over the next three years, including excessive speeding in a car, he could immediately be sent to jail.
“Naturally the criminal record is a moral burden he will have to carry with him,” said Becker’s lawyer Klaus Volk. “It certainly hurts.”
Becker’s lawyers had argued he did not deserve jail because he had paid 45 million marks ($22 million) in tax since switching his residence back to Germany in 1994 as well as the outstanding tax he owed for 1991 to 1993.
Many other top German sportsmen such as Franz Beckenbauer, Michael Stich, Michael and Ralf Schumacher have for years lived abroad in Austria and Switzerland to avoid high German taxes.
In his court remarks, Becker blamed the tax office and prosecutors for distracting him from his career.
He said he did not win another tournament after they first raided his Munich home in 1994 searching for financial documents. He said he retired in 1999 because of the distraction.