A mystery to many, certainly a genius on all surfaces; Björn Borg is still considered to be one of the best tennis players ever. Yet he retired from the game with a sigh of relief, as if he had just removed some great heavy load off his back.
Just who is the person they call 'The Ice Man' of tennis?
The Golden Wonder
Björn Rune Borg was born on 6 June, 1956, in Södertäljie, a small town just outside Stockholm. In Sweden, skiing, hockey and football were the predominant sports of the time. Tennis was a rarity here; virtually no one was taking up the sport. The young Borg was fascinated by a tennis racquet that his father had won at a table-tennis championship. After his father gave him the racquet and Borg duly found out what it was for, he started to play on the local clay courts, at the tender age of nine.
Barely into elementary school, he was spotted by his future coach, Lennart Bergelin, a former member of the Swedish Davis Cup team. It was the manner of Borg's play that impressed him; the fact that he was so fast, yet so lanky in appearance. The sports he played at school also led him to develop and strengthen certain features of his game. The characteristic two-handed backhand1 came from the slap shot in hockey, and the almost balletic footwork from football. His impressive upper body strength also meant that his groundstrokes were whipped across the court with heavy topspin, making them almost impossible to return. In short, the young Borg's baseline style of play was not just impressive, but very promising indeed.
At the age of 13, he was beating Sweden's best under 18s. At the age of 14, he left school and started his international career; winning one of many of his junior titles in Miami. At 15, he won the junior title on the very different grass courts of Wimbledon; not only that, he became the youngest ever member of a Davis Cup team.
It was as a 16-year-old that he led the Swedish Davis Cup team to victory in 1972, and it from then on, he started his meteoric rise to the top of the men's game.
He was certainly bizarre for a tennis player, if just only by appearance, a 5'11" right-hander, with what has been described as elastic, bandy legs. He also only weighed 160 lb. The sweatband became a trademark, as would the thousands of girls who would squeal from the courtside; a result of his flowing golden hair, and handsome Scandinavian features. What was also completely bizarre was his temperament on court - if indeed he did have any emotion at all.
Poor line calls, close line calls, insults from the other player: no reaction.
Good shots, aces, winning psychologically important points: no reaction. It was little wonder he had commentators wondering if he had ice and not blood running through his veins.
Gentlemanly, quiet, reserved, and shy of the press; he was a refreshing contrast to an era which also had the fighter that was Jimmy Connors, and the spoilt serve-volleyer that was John McEnroe ringing in the ears of many an umpire.
The Ice Man Cometh
The French Open, Roland Garros
Such was his earlier clay court training that it was unsurprising that he won at the clay courts of Roland Garros. What is perhaps surprising is he did it when he was 18 (1974). Even then, it wasn't easy. It was played out against the favoured Michel Orantes, and Borg had already dropped the first two sets. It is testament to his skill at the baseline that he took the tournament.
Afterwards, he then marked out the Parisian clay courts as his own. He won again in 1975, and 1978, 79, 80 and 1981. For those six years he dominated the clay-courters' premier tournament; for those six years he carved out an era for himself.
The All England Championships, Wimbledon
The green and pleasant courts of SW192 were a completely different matter. To state the obvious, grass is a completely different surface, more favoured to the attacking serve and volley type of play than Borg's baseline battles. So it was not entirely shocking that he really didn't do too well on grass surfaces in the men's game until Wimbledon 1976.
In that year's tournament, having recognised that to do well on grass, you had to serve and volley, he flew in early, and dedicated himself to 2 whole weeks of solid training in those tactics. Prior to that, his serve was far from amazing, and his volleying practically non-existent. It paid off. He completely pasted the favourite, the showman Ille Nastase, 6-2, 6-4, 9-7. Even then, he rarely approached the net. Neither did Nastase, also a clay court specialist. Centre Court was witness to a battle from the baseline. Such was the quality of Borg's groundstrokes that even on grass, he prospered. At the time, he was the youngest man to win the Championship3. Critics were amazed, and then dismissed it as a fluke. Even Nastase was astonished at the Swede's skill and calm; 'He's a robot from outer space... a Martian.'
Then, Wimbledon 1977. Again he confounded his critics by getting to the final; this time, against the fiercely competitive American, Jimmy Connors. It was not so easy this time; he was taken to the full five sets, but again, amazingly, winning; 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. Winning once may have been an accident, but twice was inexplicable. Admittedly, by now, Borg's serve-volley game had come on in leaps and bounds. Although he would never become a great serve-volleyer, he combined the attacking serve-volley game with his own baseline skill, and forged it into a formidable gameplay.
This gameplay was to prove to be impenetrable; he won again in Wimbledon 1978, again, beating Connors, becoming the first man since Fred Perry4 to win the Championship three times in a row (1934 - 1936). Then, shocking all, he won it again in 1979, beating the American, Roscoe Tanner, again, in five sets. However, there was more to come.
It was in 1980, that a cocky 22-year-old New Yorker had already shouted down many a court official in the US Open, and had also arrived on Wimbledon's lush green courts, pushing the very etiquette of the sport to its limits, and maybe stepping over the mark, and jumping up and down on the chalked lines for good measure. John McEnroe had already been noticed for his skill, fire and precocious brilliance; he too, was looking to win Wimbledon. Borg had a real challenge here - not only was McEnroe an expert serve-volleyer, and thus would prosper on grass, but he would probably shatter concentration with his very vocal temper tantrums. Both reached the final; now called by many, the best ever.
The commentators were backing Borg; after all, you don't win Wimbledon four times previously and not come into the final as a favourite. But there was the question of McEnroe's own similarly meteoric rise; would he be the one to usurp the Swede's reign? The answer, it seemed was no, as Borg, although losing the first set 1-6, raised his game to win the second set 7-5, and the third set 6-3. It then seemed like curtains for McEnroe as Borg served for the fourth, at 5-4. But then, McEnroe got inspired; and levelled the set, forcing it into the most celebrated tiebreak of all time. Championship point came, and Borg was unable to convert it. It came again, and again, he couldn't convert it. Five times in total this happened, four on his own serve. He still couldn't convert them. He lost the set, 6-7 (16-18). The Championship was thrown open once again, and McEnroe was back in the match. But as was Borg's nature, despite the disappointment that was so audible from the teenyboppers courtside, there was no reaction.
One of the main differences between Borg and McEnroe, apart from the obvious ones in gameplay and temperament, was the practice. McEnroe was young, some may say too confident or even arrogant in his own skills as a serve-volleyer, and may have convinced himself at this stage, after the tumultuous fourth set tiebreak that he would then naturally win the fifth set. Borg, always the more diligent, had spent more time on the practice courts. It may have been the extra practice, or even his experience. Whatever the case, an exhausted McEnroe couldn't keep up the standard of tennis that won him the fourth set any longer. Borg won the fifth set 8-6, and earned his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title5.
Wimbledon 1981 certainly had its moments. It was the first time in which the world saw McEnroe really losing it over a line call early in the tournament, coining the now well-worn phrase 'You cannot be serious!' By divine luck, or sympathetic umpiring, he made it back to the final, where Borg was, quite predictably, waiting for him.
The current unbeaten record for consecutive wins was, and still is, six years in a row by Willie Renshaw (1881-1886). Impressive though that may sound, that was at a time when the tournament's structure was much easier. The pressure was on from the press and the fans to see if Borg could indeed, make it six in a row. Perhaps it was divine luck, as McEnroe battled his way through five sets to eventually dethrone Borg at 4-6, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4. McEnroe's reaction was to break down in tears of joy; Borg's reaction was typical. Nothing. Sportsmanly in defeat as well as in triumph, it is little wonder he was the 'good guy' of tennis.
The Australian Open
This was the one big gap in his tennis career. Information on his play at this Grand Slam is sadly lacking, and there may be two theories for this.
Firstly, the Australian Open was played on grass until the late 80s, when the surface was changed to Ace Rebound; a court surface which can be manipulated to the court organisers' requirements. Hence, at the time when Borg would have been playing, it was a grass court - not his favoured surface. However, he had a five-year-run of Titles at Wimbledon, which is the world's premier grass court tournament. So, this may not have been an important theory.
The other theory is that many players from the Northern Hemisphere, at that time, would have had to put much time and effort in organising a trip to the Southern Hemisphere; hence, not many players from Europe or the States really regarded this Grand Slam tournament with much importance. However, this did not stop other players such as McEnroe or Connors from turning up.
It may have been a combination of the two theories; the surface was not really his favoured type of court, and it took far too long to get there.
The US Open
Even though one may have thought that at the time of such great American tennis players such as the aforementioned McEnroe, or Connors, Borg would have been facing a highly partisan crowd; the US public took to him like a new son. Not being a US citizen did not seem to be a barrier - the home crowds loved him all the same. This was mainly due to the abysmal behaviour of McEnroe and Connors that not even the home crowd could tolerate; hence, it seemed only natural that they would cheer for 'good guy' Borg.
Another feature of this Grand Slam which was in his favour was the surface of the court. Before 1974, the US Open was played on grass at Forest Hills: not the favoured surface of Borg. After 1974, the US Open organisers changed the surface to a hard acrylic court, and the location of the US Open to its present setting, Flushing Meadows. This enabled them to alter the court's speed to their requirements. Hence, both clay-court and grass-court specialists would, in theory, be on a level playing field; with a slow enough court to enable the clay-courters to stay back and thump away from the baseline, but not as slow as clay, while being fast enough for the aggressive serve-and-volley experts, but not as fast as grass. So, it could be said that this was a 'Goldilocks' set of courts, not too fast, and not too slow, but just right. As demonstrated before, Borg prospered on grass; the serve-volleyer's favoured surface, as well as clay - his own favoured surface. So in theory, he would be more than well suited here.
What was not in his favour was the set-up of the courtstands and the match schedule. The way that the crowd is seated at the US Open is more like a football stadium with a capacity to match, and less like the demure arrangement of SW19 or Roland Garros. Also, the courts are floodlighted, enabling the feature matches6 to start at 7pm (local time) at the earliest, and to continue well into the night, partly to fit in as many matches as possible, and partly for the television networks' scheduling convenience. Hence, the tinderbox atmosphere created on the courts at Flushing Meadows, never made the US Open his sort of place. But, typically, if the stress did get to him, it never showed.
Despite all the positive aspects of the courts, he still lost to Connors in 1976 and 1978.
He was to meet McEnroe in the US Open 1980 final, and was taken to five sets, eventually yielding in 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 5-7, 6-4. Perhaps this was McEnroe's revenge for his own loss to Borg at Wimbledon that year. The following year, Borg was unceremoniously booted out in the final in four sets, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, by none other than the left-handed nemesis that was McEnroe, who had, in the same year, taken the Wimbledon crown from him. By that time, Borg had decided that he had quite enough, and at the age of 26, retired from the game.
Thank You For The Tennis
Why did he retire so early? No one really knows. From a man who was so private, and gave very little away through facial expression, one can merely speculate at what was going on under the trademark ice-cool façade. What is certain is this - immense national expectation and constant criticism from the Swedish press about his inability to win the US Open couldn't have helped. Borg himself said that the reason that he couldn't get over the US Open hurdle was that he had, '...no heart. Can't win the big one.' The press were typically, unsympathetic:
Is Sweden's Golden Boy just a mechanical robot? Is what we took for tremendous calm merely a lack of fire and spirit?
He may have retired earlier to be remembered for his successes, rather than later, and be remembered for disastrous losses. But such is the mystery of his personality, that, just to reiterate, we may never know the real reason.
'Ice' Borg Now
After retiring from the sport, he decided to concentrate on his many business ventures, one of which is a line of sports clothing, branded with his name. Despite leaving the arena of professional tennis as if he were being released from a lengthy prison term, he is still involved in the game. He still battles it out with old foes Connors and McEnroe on the ATP's7 Senior circuit, and predictably, still takes them to the full three sets. It is unsurprising that he still is idolised by many in the current Men's game. One such person, upon whom Borg has had a great deal of influence, is Andre Agassi. His style of play is remarkably similar; trading shots from the baseline as Borg did, more than a decade before him.
This, however, may be the only similarity. Borg was so cool on court, he made horizontal seem quite uptight. However, Agassi is renowned for being the Las Vegas showman, and occasionally being quite visibly stressed comes into the equation. Borg never swore on court, or even off it. Agassi is not shy of the odd profanity on court, and never minces his words off it either. On a more trivial note, Borg still sports the shoulder-length golden tresses. Agassi, despite having an overwhelming abundance of hair when he won Wimbledon in 1992, now sports a rather shiny bald pate.
His influence has not been out of the reaches of H2G2, when, to celebrate Wimbledon 2001, several tennis-related smileys were made. One of them is predictably, the 'strawberries and cream' smiley. Another one, is titled 'Borg', where, there is the sweatbanded smiley, swinging Borg's trademark two-handed backhand.
Looking Back On It All
And so, here are few of the many highlights of his self-inflicted short, yet spectacular career.
It might be stretching the definition of the word 'rivalry' here, but almost certainly, even though they were not consummated verbally, you only have to look at the ferocity of Borg's groundstrokes to see that the rivalries were indeed, very real. Out of his professional tennis career, two stand out:
vs Connors - He has a good run against the brash American, with 10 wins to 7.
vs McEnroe - What about the other temperamental American who vied for the Wimbledon title too? Both are drawn at 7 wins all.
|Grand Slam Highlights|
|Roland Garros||Singles Winner||1974, '75, '78, '79, '80, '81|
|1976, '77, '78, '79, '80
|US Open||Singles Finalist||1976, '78, '80, '81|
Björn Borg, in his own quiet and reserved manner, carved out an era of tennis that still remains strong in the minds of tennis fans and players alike. It would seem that he was in 'the zone'8 for over six years. How he managed to maintain the ice-cool temperament while channelling all the energy into those groundshots, we may never know. He will certainly remain a mystery to many; undoubtedly a legend to all.