Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

The Greatest: The Men and Women Who Made Tennis. No. 3 – Björn Borg

Björn Borg was the man who made tennis sexy. In the second half of the 1970s, he generated the kind of obsessive fan behaviour, even mania, that tennis had never really seen before. That was not only because of his domination of the men’s game, especially on the utterly contrasting surfaces of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but because of his physical appearance, in particular the beard and long, flowing blonde locks that made him look like a modern-day (but infinitely more civilised) Viking, and his seemingly complete self-control, which led to the impression that he was some kind of Nordic “Iceman”. He was as much an archetypal figure of the 1970s and early 1980s as ABBA, his fellow Swedes and the most successful pop band of the period, and as a result he brought tennis to new and far greater audiences around the world.

Björn Borg was born in the Swedish capital of Stockholm in 1956. As he would go on to become “The Golden Boy” of tennis, almost a New Age equivalent of Norse Gods like Thor, it is entirely appropriate that his first tennis racket should also have been golden. It was not literally made of gold (although later he would have been able to afford a solid-gold racket if he had wanted one), only painted gold, but it none the less fascinated him after his father, Rune, had won it in a competition. It was the first prize not in a tennis tournament but in a table tennis tournament, at a time when it was not uncommon for people to play both the full-size and miniature versions of “tennis”. (Fred Perry, for one, had excelled at both, winning Wimbledon after he had become the World Table Tennis Champion.) Because Bjorn was so entranced by the racket, Rune gave it to him to keep, thus setting him on the path to one of the most successful and storied careers in the history of tennis.

Björn became so obsessed with tennis that he quickly became something of a child prodigy; as soon as he had reached his teens and began entering junior tournaments in Sweden, he was easily beating players five years older than him. This soon brought him to the attention of Swedish coaches and professional players, in particular the country’s Davis Cup captain, Lennart Bergelin. Bergelin had been one of Sweden’s few tennis players of note before Borg, having been a sufficiently good singles player to reach the quarterfinals at three of the four Majors (Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open), and as a doubles player he had won the French Open in 1948 alongside the great Czech player Jaroslav Drobný. However, even that extremely successful double act with Drobný would eventually be eclipsed by the partnership he formed with Borg.

Bergelin was so convinced by the ability of the teenage Borg that he picked him for Sweden’s Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in 1972, when Borg was still only 15, making him one of the youngest debutants in the history of the premier team tournament in tennis. Typically, Borg won his first rubber, beating a much older and more experienced player, Onny Parun, who would go on to reach the Australian Open Final the following year, in five sets. Thus, the legend of Björn Borg was born, and Bergelin was so impressed by his performance that he soon became Borg’s coach and would remain his main coach for the rest of Borg’s career.

Björn Borg was one of those truly precocious sportsmen or women who burst onto the scene in their chosen sport at a very young age, and as a result they can enjoy a relatively long career but still retire, or at least peak, in their mid-twenties. More recent examples in other sports would Michael Owen and Fernando Torres in football. So, Borg quickly built upon his impressive Davis Cup debut in 1972 by winning both the most famous junior event in world tennis, Florida’s Orange Bowl, and the Junior Wimbledon title later the same year. As a result of his domination of those two prestigious tournaments, he was able to turn professional in 1973, when he was still only 16 years old.

There are fascinating similarities between Borg and the man who, according to another Swedish Major winner Mat Wilander, has done the most since Borg to grow the profile of tennis around the world, namely Roger Federer. Obviously both Borg and Federer would go on to dominate tennis, particularly Wimbledon, winning five successive titles on the grass of London SW19. However, perhaps the most important similarity between the two men was that as young players, particularly when they first turned professional and began to play on the ATP Tour, they both struggled to control their tempers. Astonishing as it seems now, both Borg and Federer were prone to smashing rackets and confronting umpires in their youth. Equally, both men soon learned the error of their ways and thereafter exerted the kind of Herculean self-control that would become one of their absolute trademarks.

Almost as soon as he turned professional, Borg began to rise up the world rankings. He reached his first ATP Final, in Monte Carlo, in April 1973, losing to the man who was then probably the greatest male tennis player in the world, Ilie Nastase. Nevertheless, Borg continued with his distinctive style of play, particularly the two-handed backhand that was considered unusual before it became the norm in tennis, and eventually he began to exhibit the remarkable poise and unflappability that would ultimately become synonymous with him. Consequently, by the end of his first year as a professional he was ranked within the world’s top 20.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Björn Borg is that he would go on to dominate two of the four Grand Slam tournaments, and they are the tournaments – the French Open and Wimbledon – that might be called “The Unique Slams”, in that they are the only Majors played on their own particular surface, namely clay and grass respectively. Of course, that wasn’t the case in the mid-1970s, when both the US Open and the Australian Open were also played on grass, before they moved to hardcourt surfaces, which only makes Borg’s relative failure at those other two Majors all the stranger. However, at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, on both la terre battue (the beaten earth) and the lush green lawns of London, Borg achieved absolutely extraordinary success, which for the second half of the 1970s made him almost completely unbeatable in Europe’s two Majors.

Borg won his first Grand Slam tournament at Roland Garros in 1974, beating Spain’s Manuel Orantes (who would go on to win the US Open the following year) in a truly historic Final. He came from two sets down to triumph in five sets, 2–6, 6–7( 4–7), 6–0, 6–1, 6–1, winning the last three sets for the combined loss of just two games, in what was and still remains one of the most remarkable turnarounds ever seen in a Major Men’s Singles Final. It was as if, having lost the second set on a tie-break to stare a straight-sets defeat in the face, Borg came out swinging for the rest of the match, while also exhibiting stunning self-control for someone so young. And effectively he kept swinging his racket (with his unique, almost jerky style of hitting) and did not allow himself to be subject to any major mood swings on court for the next seven years.

Borg was just 18 when he won his first French title and he retained his crown the following year when he beat Argentina’s Guillermo Villas in straight sets, 6–2, 6–3, 6–4. However, having made his breakthrough in Paris by winning the French Open in successive years, it was at Wimbledon, the world’s greatest and most famous tennis tournament, that he really entered the stratosphere, achieving a level of fame that not even the greatest champions who had preceded him, from Tilden to Perry to Laver, had attained. Indeed, Borg achieved what only the very greatest champions of their sport achieve, which is, if only for a brief period, to almost transcend their sport and become famous even among non-sports fans. That was what Borg did at Wimbledon in the second half of the 1970s, emulating his fellow Swedes ABBA in achieving the kind of total world (or at least European) domination that no Scandinavians had enjoyed since the age of the Vikings, more than a millennium earlier.

Borg won his first Wimbledon singles title in 1976, avenging his first ever defeat in a professional final by beating Ilie Nastase in straight sets, 6–4, 6–2, 9–7, with only the third set genuinely competitive. It was another hugely significant and symbolic victory, because it not only proved that Borg could win on grass as well as on clay but confirmed his pre-eminence in men’s tennis. In effect, he replaced Nastase, the man who had done so much to dominate tennis and tennis coverage in the first half of the 1970s, as the “face” of the sport, and it was a very different face to that of Nastase. Whereas “Mr Nasty” had been vilified at least as much as he was adored for his petulant and at times histrionic behaviour on court, Borg, having learned to control himself as a teenager even on the rare occasions when he lost, appeared utterly unflappable.

That “Ice Man” persona, which almost made him the sporting equivalent of a character in an Ingmar Bergman film, served him supremely well at Wimbledon, where he made Centre Court his own and won five successive titles between 1976 and 1980. And that record is all the more astonishing when one considers that, having stumbled somewhat in Paris in 1976 and 1977, he then won the French Open four times in succession between 1978 and 1981. It was as if the apparently ice-cool nature of Borg’s play and personality completely neutralised the vagaries of both grass and clay, making him almost unbeatable on either surface.

Then came the final act of Borg’s relatively brief (at least in terms of total years played on tour) career, and that was when he finally found the rival worthy of his own extraordinary talents, John McEnroe. Borg had defeated almost everyone else on the men’s tour many times, from Jimmy Connors to Vitas Gerulaitis to Guillermo Villas, who were all top players in their own right. However, it was in McEnroe, the brash but brilliant New Yorker who emerged at the end of the 1970s, that Borg finally met the man who would lift his own game to new heights and ultimately elevate them both into the sporting pantheon.

“Borg Versus McEnroe” is such an obvious sporting shorthand that it was the title of the 2017 film about their rivalry, which centred on their two classic Wimbledon Finals in 1980 and 1981. Having reached the Wimbledon semi-final as an 18-year-old amateur on his debut at the tournament in 1977, McEnroe had built upon that spectacular success by winning the US Open in 1979. However, it was the following year at Wimbledon that he really established his legend, by reaching the Wimbledon Final against Borg and competing in the match that was universally hailed as the greatest tennis match ever played. Indeed, it retained that title until it was finally surpassed, nearly thirty years later, by the 2008 Men’s Singles Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, when Nadal finally broke Federer’s own stranglehold on the Wimbledon title.

In 1980, McEnroe did not quite manage to break the Borg stranglehold on the Wimbledon title, but he still took him to five sets, which included a fourth-set tie-break that has itself become legendary. McEnroe finally won it 18-16, to take the match to a fifth and deciding set. Borg finally won that fifth set, without a tie-break, 8-6, to win his fifth Wimbledon title in a row. However, he subsequently lost the 1980 US Open Final against McEnroe, in another five-set thriller that would have been the best match of any other year, and although he won the French Open for a sixth time in 1981, beating a young Ivan Lendl in five sets, that was to prove the Swede’s last Major title. He subsequently lost the 1981 Wimbledon Final in four sets to McEnroe and one of the great sporting reigns was finally over.

Contrary to popular belief and even tennis mythology, Borg did not quit tennis as soon as he lost his Wimbledon crown. The announcement of his retirement actually came much later,  indeed as late as 1983, when, after a long absence from the professional tour, he finally confirmed that he was retiring. He was still only 26. Nevertheless, in just over a decade as a professional tennis player he had achieved more than almost any player who had come before him, not only on court but in making tennis must-see TV throughout the world.

Although, remarkably, Borg never won the US Open and only competed once at the Australian Open (losing ignominiously in the third round in 1974), his almost complete domination of both the French Open and Wimbledon made him one of the greatest and most successful tennis players ever. But even more incredibly, the unique combination of his controlled play, dominating matches (even at Wimbledon) from the baseline, and his apparently completely controlled personality made him an icon of the sport that few players since have ever come close to matching. Arguably, it is only in the last decade or so, nearly thirty years after Borg quit the sport, that tennis has found three champions, in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, to surpass the Swede, both in their achievements on the court and in their global recognition and popularity off it. But it must always be remembered that Borg came first, as the original superstar of tennis, and even the Big Three had to follow in his footsteps.

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