Bjorn Borg, Tennis' Stylish Iceman: Facts And Biography
July 4, 1981: Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe before the start of the men's singles final at Wimbledon (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)
Swedish tennis champion Bjorn Borg was the disco-era stud of the court, a handsome and stylish gentleman of a player with locks like Samson always kept just so by his striped headband. He won Wimbledon five times in a row, and the French Open six times, rarely showing emotion while battling such famously fiery players as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. When he retired at 26, fans of the game were devastated, as they had hoped to watch Borg-McEnroe, then the greatest rivalry in tennis, for years to come.
Bjorn Borg swept through professional tennis like an ice storm. He came, he saw, he conquered and through all of it, his demeanor barely changed. The Swedish sensation broke through at the precocious age of 17, defeating the legendary Arthur Ashe as if he swept aside another ill-matched teenager.
The press made a fuss of the teenager’s historic win but Borg saw it only as an inevitability. “Everyone talks of my age. So what if I am 18? What is this meaning? I always be with people 24 or 25 years old. I think I am 25. That is a good age. I don't think I am extra unusual." However, the Ice-Borg was anything but usual.
18 Going on 30
Judith Elian, tennis correspondent of L'Equipe in Paris, who followed Borg from his earliest days says of his demeanor, "Bjorn, he has never been dummy. He has never been little boy." From the day Borg exploded onto the tennis scene, his utterly icey, calm disposition rarely changed. He practiced like a madman, plowing through hours and hours of tournament speed tennis without tiring. He worked so hard to develop his uniquely brutish style that fellow tennis legend Ivan Lendl worried about his health.
"I'd like to advise him not to play so often," said Rod Laver. "Not so much for his health but for his mind. The poor kid will go nutty, be drained of interest. Then I remember when I was 18, all I wanted to do was play and hit the ball, too." Unfortunately, Laver’s words were sadly prescient.
The sport of tennis allows for creativity and imagination. The goal for each player is the same but the path to winning usually isn’t. Whether it’s a serve and volley game like John McEnroe or the silky smooth one-handed artistry of Rodger Federer, every player’s game is different. Bjorn Borg’s game was somehow extra different. Mark Cox, fellow pro, said of Borg, “He plays with a total lack of inhibition, strictly on talent and inspiration, and it's enough."
His twisting, wristy style came from a youth spent on ping pong tables, and he rarely rushed the net. A few coaches tried to change it; they thought he played “working tennis, too technical, not much style.” But Borg was adamant about doing things his way, and he could always put the ball exactly where he wanted. As his coach, Lennart Bergelin, would say, “Coming to the net is like being at the frontier. You're fighting the unknown.” Instead, Borg bashed his opponent’s brains in from the baseline.
“I try to make my challenger believe he can't outsteady me," Borg explained. "My cold attitude on court helps. I never applaud or acknowledge an opponent's good shot. I just go about the business of the next point. This, in a sense, is saying, I don't care how spectacular one shot is, you'll have to hit two thousand to beat me."
A Brilliant Eclipse
From ‘74 to ‘81 Borg won 11 slam titles, including the three straight years in which he won both the French Open and Wimbledon. That astounding feat has never been matched. "This man is a genius," said fellow pro Vijay Amritraj, marveling at Borg's ability to dominate both the grass courts of Wimbledon and the clay courts of Roland Garros. “Any man who wins a tournament four times on a surface he plays once a year is an absolute genius."
The 3 hour, 53 minute ‘80 Wimbledon final between Borg and McEnroe is considered one of the greatest matches of all time. That loss still haunts McEnroe today, despite besting Borg in Grand Slam finals 3-1.
Oddly enough, for all his brilliance at Wimbledon and the French Open, the rest of Borg's Grand Slam resume is disappointing. He never won a U.S. Open, losing twice in the final to McEnroe and twice to Connors. He only entered the Australian Open once, losing in the third round to Phil Dent.
One Of The Great Rivalries In Sports
Rivalries can define a sport and the continuous clashes between Borg and McEnroe helped take tennis to new heights of popularity. Everything about the pair was at odds, from their playing styles to their personalities. Borg was the definition of a cold assassin, taking your heart without batting an eyelash. McEnroe, on the other hand, was a whirling dervish of calamity. He was either screaming at himself, his opponent, or the umpires.
Although, McEnroe says he tempered his act when playing against Borg, “I never acted like a jerk against him. I had too much respect.” The two disparate characters played their roles to a T. McEnroe, the loud, brash American, partied at Studio 54. Borg, the long-haired Swede, “neither shaved nor indulged in sex as long as he kept winning.”
Although as a young man, Borg boasted of his virility as only a Swedish professional athlete could, “Nothing is serious for I shall not be married before 25, and I would not expect a girl to wait for me that long. I have too many girls, two a night if I want."
Gone Too Soon
In the early ‘80s, it appeared the tennis public would watch Borg and McEnroe battle it out for the entire decade. But it wasn’t to be. A quote from that time period marks Borg’s thought process, "At the moment I never think of what I am winning. I like earning money, but when I must win it, that is when I start to worry."
After he lost the ‘81 U.S Open final to McEnroe, Borg hopped on a plane without even changing his clothes and retired. The years after retirement were difficult for Borg: two divorces, and a failed return as a professional plagued him. Eventually, he turned his life around and lives happily in Sweden, playing tennis for an hour a day. Today, "The guy looks great," McEnroe says, "like he still does 500 sit-ups and push-ups a day.
Tags: 1970s Sports | Bjorn Borg | Tennis | Tennis In The 1970s
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