Bjorn Borg – The Ice Cool Tennis Legend

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For those growing up in the 1970’s, Bjorn Borg was a tennis icon.Many regard him as the first tennis ‘superstar’, amassing a following among the public (particularly young people), never seen before.The borderlines between sports stars, rock stars and other celebrities were becoming increasingly blurred in that decade and Borg managed to find a niche for himself in that space.His impact on the game was legendary.His unique talent, unorthodox stroke production, steely temperament and ‘never say die’ attitude gained him a position among the very best in the history of tennis.For those in the UK, his epic record as a five-in-a-row winner of Wimbledon is indelibly etched in the memory and the basis for the great, long-standing affection for the Swede here.

Borg was defined as much by his own talent and prowess as by his tussles with his main rivals: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.Borg was the ‘ice-cool’ Swede to McEnroe’s fiery Irish-American and an example of solid predictability in contrast with Connors’ ebullient and explosive talent.These were the heroes of the era who faced one another in gladiatorial fashion to the delight of fans.

Borg was the classic ‘child prodigy’.He displayed an exceptional talent from an early age and soon came to the notice of former Swedish Davis Cup hero and coach, Lennart Bergelin under whose expert tutelage, Borg saw his career blossom.  

He joined the pro circuit at the age of 14 and in 1972 at 15, represented Sweden in the Davis Cup against New Zealand, winning his debut singles against seasoned pro, Onny Parun.Borg also joined that select group of players to win Junior Wimbledon, also in 1972. 

Not often alluded to is the fact that beside his early prodigious talent, Borg once had a fierce temper (so at variance with the ‘Ice Man’ image) which Bergelin was soon able to iron out of his game.Had that not happened, perhaps in later years, Connors and McEnroe would have encountered an individual just like themselves!Bergelin was the ‘wise old head’ the young Swede needed in his assault on the citadels of professional tennis.Bergelin will also be remembered by all avid viewers of Wimbledon in the 1970’s as the towering presence in the Players’ Box on Centre Court jumping with enthusiasm at Borg’s victories.

Borg’s career record was stellar.He won 11 Grand Slam singles titles (6 French and 5 Wimbledon), putting him in fourth place in the Open era after Federer, Nadal and Sampras.Interestingly, for a player of his calibre, he never managed to win either the US or the Australian Opens.In the former, he reached four finals and in the latter, he only competed once (in 1974) when he lost in the third round.It would be hard to imagine a player of Borg’s calibre nowadays not competing regularly in a Grand Slam event, but those were different days.However, as his records at Roland Garros and Wimbledon show, he totally dominated these events in the late 1970’s.Over the course of his career, he amassed 64 titles, impressive but not as many as his key rivals, McEnroe, Connors or Lendl.This can be explained largely by his retiring at 27 when most players are in their prime.

Mention should be made of Borg’s outstanding Davis Cup record for Sweden.As well as making his debut at the tender age of 15, he still holds the record for the longest winning streak of Davis Cup rubbers (33) from 1973 to 1981 – reflecting an amazing level of consistency over such a period.Consistency was one of Borg’s greatest hallmarks.

How did Borg fare in his head-to-head encounters with Connors, McEnroe and Lendl?Against McEnroe, the tally was an even 7-7 during their main pro careers.Against Connors, he was 13-8 and against Lendl, he won 5 to Lendl’s 2.These statistics suggest that Borg was ‘first among equals’ at the height of his career.

Borg injected something different into the game in the 1970’s.He did not conform to the stereotype of the big serve/volley playing champion, preferring to build his winning points by patient stroke play from the baseline.His ground strokes were searing and consistent – you would always bet on him coming out on top in a baseline encounter. He was one of the first to use a double-handed backhand which became his trademark and encouraged a trend among younger players in the game.

Borg will also be remembered for what is regarded by many as perhaps, the greatest match in tennis history – the 1980 Wimbledon Singles Final against John McEnroe.Although the honour of ‘greatest match’ may be disputed with the 2009 Federer/Nadal Wimbledon final, the 1980 final was breathtaking.The match had everything.Borg, the ‘Ice Man’ was facing the fiery ‘enfant terrible’, McEnroe.Borg had already won 4 finals in a row, aiming at a modern era record five-in a-row.McEnroe, the new kid on the block, was vying to make it his first and also had a hostile crowd to contend with.The match went to five sets. The fourth set which McEnroe won had an impossibly large number of both set points and match points before it was resolved.  Borg held out and won the epic fifth set. The match has since become the stuff of pub conversations, You Tube videos and ESPN Sports Classics. 

Borg retired prematurely in 1982, a short while after losing to McEnroe in the 1981 Wimbledon and US Open finals, burned out and seemingly having lost his appetite for the game.Borg and McEnroe’s friendship has flowered over the years and both maintain huge respect for one another. Borg attempted a number of unsuccessful comebacks in the 1990’s and to this day, takes an active role in the Seniors Tour.Yet, many still ask what might have been had Borg continued playing on the Tour into his mid-30’s.By the age of 27, he had already won 11 Grand Slams.The world was his oyster, but like the Welsh rugby hero of the 1960’s/70’s, Barry John, he inexplicably left the stage at his peak.It was only some time later that the world came to hear of serious personal issues which had plagued the Swede and his career.

Where Borg stands exactly in the pantheon of tennis champions is open to conjecture, but few would doubt that he would appear somewhere near the top end of the Top Ten.In his era, he was dazzling.His style was unique, his stamina, consistency, agility and determination were his chief hallmarks.He was also a true sportsman on court, unfailing in his respect for opponents, umpires and officials.If a little robotic, he made up for it by ‘speaking with his racquet’ which brought him to the very top of the game.He left indelible memories at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, events which he made his own, in the way that many years later, Nadal did at Roland Garros and Federer did at Wimbledon.

I had the pleasure of seeing Borg live in action once at the King’s Cup match in Dublin in 1978 between Sweden and Ireland.Having a number of French and Wimbledon titles already under his belt, he was the ‘coming thing’ and a huge attraction at the time.The result was comfortably in Sweden’s favour, but the chance to see Borg play in my home town was memorable. 

He was very much a figure of the 1970’s and in a sense, symbolised that decade.As well as his many personal achievements, he helped consolidate the professional game in the early years of the Open era. He was undoubtedly, one of the best players of all time.

 

Paul McElhinney

May 2013 

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