Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - Sigh Borg, Part 1
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Sigh Borg, Part 1 10/04/2007 - 2:38 PM


[In honor of Bjorn Borg's return to competition on Friday in the Alex Tennis Classics at Eindhoven (A Blackrock Tour of Champions event) - and a resumption of his rivalry with John McEnroe, TW spiritual adviser Miguel Seabra has filed a special, two-part report on the Swedish hero. Borg meets McEnroe in a round-robin match on Friday evening.  Enjoy  - Pete]

What is the most celebrated picture of a tennis player commemorating a tournament victory in the history of the sport?

It has to be one of Bjorn Borg kneeling in triumph - and disbelief -  after he finally beat John McEnroe in that five-set 1980 Wimbledon epic that remains, in my opinion, the single most important tennis match ever played.

In an era when players were still unaccustomed to playing to the camera or rehearsing their victory celebrations, that spontaneous moment from a champion who had the reputation of having ice-water instead of blood in his veins set the standard. Never mind that moments later, Borg was a bit clumsy using his racket as a crutch to rise. That photograph remains frozen in our minds. How far we've come from the late 1970s, when players would awkwardly throw their racquet over their heads and leap (!) the net to congratulate beaten opponents.

By now, kneeling in the de facto Cathedral of Tennis has become a popular ritual even before the championship match. But has anyone else noticed that those who fall to their knees before a final, as Nadal, Gasquet, and Marion Bartoli did his year, rarely go on to win the title?

I saw that 1980 Wimbledon men's final at age 12, and it is partly responsible for why I became a tennis writer. I was rooting for McEnroe then, but that image of Borg proved unforgettable. But there was another incident that, to me, remains just as much part of the Borg folklore.

At the Monte-Carlo Open in 1992, one of the very first big international events I covered outside Portugal, Borg was attempting a come-back. After almost a ten year absence from the tour, and wielding an anachronistic wooden frame, Borg lost in his very first comeback match in 1991 on the same court to the Spanish journeyman, Jordi Arrese. He was giving it a final go, this time using a more contemporary racket. He was pitted against up-and-coming Wayne Ferreira, and ultimately had ample chances in the first set before he lost, 7-6, 6-2. At the end of the match, a fan jumped out of the crowd and, holding a crown of some sort, ran onto the court and tried to put it on Borg's head.

Stunned, The King without a throne ducked the freaky coronation. The symbolic - and tragicomic - episode also remains in my mind. I even recall a conversation I had with a French 10 year-old who had also watched the match.

“What do you think of Borg?” I asked.

“He is a great champion and it is very good that he is back. But he is very old, so maybe he shouldn’t play again,” he said.

I laughed at the contradiction: “So, should he play again or not?” And the kid, very seriously, replied: “Both."

That story was on my mind as I arrived recently to cover Borg again at the Vale do Lobo Grand Champions. I wondered, should Borg, at 51, be back playing the Tour of Champions against much younger, faster and powerful opponents?

Bjorn had played a four-man exhibition at Vale do Lobo in 2002, before the event became a part of the official senior circuit. It was almost painful to watch see Emilio Sanchez lose to Borg on purpose, and then to see Jeremy Bates trying to do the same in the final match. But despite his best efforts, Bates won. The only saving grace was that Borg had a serious foot injury that subsequently sidelined him for months.

Five years later, he was back – allegedly for a $200,000 (USD) fee. His first match was the last of the day, so I went back to my family's beach house (less than a mile away) for dinner and didn't get back to the site until after the start of Borg's match with Andres Gomez, the "Gentle Giant" from Guayaquil, Equador. I was immediately struck by how well Borg was moving – although anyone might look speedy paired with Gomez. That is a bit deceptive: Gomez is faster than he looks and the left-handed former French Open champion still hits a darned good ball. But the Swede’s footwork was on a different level.

The other thing that struck me was Bjorn’s look. He was wearing a black short/red shirt combo reminiscent of a vintage Manchester United soccer outfit, and the retro design of his polo shirt reminded me of the shirts Bjorn wore circa 1976. Of course, that blond aura was long gone; his grey hair now looks more like Richard Gere’s, and the famous, trademark Fila headband was nowhere to be seen. History buff that I am, I managed to find one of the originals at home and, in a sentimental moment, stuffed it in my pocket.

It was also strange to watch Borg play with the same Wilson frame used by Federer. I'm just not used to seeing that particular racket deployed to hit two-handed backhands. And that ‘W’ logo stenciled on the strings made me think less of Borg than of his old-school nemeses, McEnroe and Connors.

Looking sharp and playing against someone only four years his junior, Borg won that match with Gomez, 6-7, 6-3 and 10/8 in the match tiebreaker (which is played instead of a third-set). It was the match Borg was supposed to win in his group. I sat there, appreciating the glimpses of greatness. I especially enjoyed the way he drew elipses on the court as he danced to-and-fro, preparing for his next shot. He was aggressive in his footwork, much like Nikolay Davydenko is nowadays.

I thought Borg's movement was much more fluid than his groundstrokes, which seemed overly fabricated. But his service motion is still simple, efficient and rock solid. He was hitting flatter trajectories off both wings, and I noticed a difference in his trademark two-fisted backhand: Back in the day, he let his left hand fly off the handle on his follow-through, now he was prudently keeping both hands on the racquet until the finish.

We had a pleasant conversation afterwards in the press conference room. Bjorn was obviously happy having won, but mostly because of the way he was able to play. He confided he’s been practicing up to five hours a day with Swedish juniors and playing a bit of ice-hockey. . . "but no gym!" He talked a bit about the event, and about his Bjorn Borg clothing line. He seemed genuinely happy, and that was the impression he created all week.Here was an open-minded, almost talkative man at peace with himself and happy with his life and family - a far cry from the robotic, Ice-Borg image a lot of people still has of him.

Borg said: "I’m really pleased. I came back first of all because I wanted to play matches against those guys again, but when you walk on the court the thing you want to do the most, even now, is to win. It’s not the end of the world if you lose anymore, but I still don’t like to lose. To win my first match back is a big satisfaction… I was unsure how I would play because, even after all those years playing tennis, it’s a long time since I played with an umpire, ball kids and a crowd, and it takes a while to get used to it. Around the middle of the first set I started to feel more confident."

Borg confirmed that he was playing with Federer’s 90 sq. in Wilson frame (not the slightly more powerful 95, the commercial version), but gently declined offering more precise information about the stringing tension he is using nowadays. He would only say, “A lot fewer kilos than I used to play”.

As was about to leave the room, I took the old Fila headband out and showed it to him. He looked surprised and smiled – then I told him about the homage Svetlana Kuznetsova (who plays in Fila clothing) paid him at Wimbledon this year. She wore the old Fila/Borg headband for a match, but after losing the first set and falling behind in the second, she took it off - and ended up winning.

"Really?" He laughed.

In his second match, Borg played another former French Open champion, and one who grew up idolizing Borg, Thomas Muster. Those who used a wooden frame most of their careers, like Borg, play in an unmistakingly way, and seem to struggle to get the most out of today's frames.I always felt that was one reason why Andre Agassi, who began using the Prince Graphite Oversize (110 sq. in) early in his career, was able to play longer on the circuit than Pete Sampras and his smallish 1984 Wilson Pro Staff frame (85 sq. in). But against Muster (the Nadal of the 1990s), Borg (the Nadal of the 70s) had a struggle. He couldn't keep up with the Austrian’s aggressive topspin.

Muster still remembers hitting balls against a wall, fantasizing that he was locked in combat with Borg. He said after his win: “For me, to play Borg is how a young musician must have felt if he got the chance to play in a band alongside John Lennon. Bjorn is still a great player and I don’t think people expect him to still be so quick. He is also a nice and funny guy, not the ice-cold person that people think”.

That Borg-Muster match was played at night, under the lights, and Muster won 10-7 in the match tiebreaker. Knowing Borg's historic aversion to night play, I had to wonder if he considered the night conditions a factor. Borg said:

"It's different for sure when you play under the lights, and some players don’t like it. But here the lights are very good”.

I couldn't resist following up: "Better than those at Flushing Meadows, against big servers?"

Borg smiled. “Well, let’s say at the time the lights could have been a little bit better. . ."

Borg also said he would never trade any of his Wimbledon trophies for the US Open title that eluded him, and feels he should have won perhaps two titles in New York. "I was a little bit unlucky. If I could go back, that would be my the goal, to win one of those.”

I also asked Borg if he had any regrets not having played the Australian Open, in order to round out his oddly asymmetrical Grand Slam resume - and add the equivalent of a gimme to to his tally. He turned serious. “These days, people talk a lot about records, Grand Slam titles, clay court matches, winning streaks. . . But back then, no-one cared about records! Maybe if they had moved the tournament date, like they did afterwards, I would have played in Australia."

That’s right: we tend to forget that those were different times. In the 70's, players often didn't bother to sit on changeovers,and sometimes they ran out of strung racquets -  even during Wimbledon finals (Ilie Nastase, vs Stan Smith). At the time, the Australian Open was a Slam in name only, much like the French Open had been before Phillipe Chartrier took control of the event and built it into the World Championships on Clay.

The easier, flatter way Borg is hitting the ball these days was even more evident in his last match, against Brasil’s Fernando Meligeni. Before the encounter, the gregarious Meligeni had said that he would get on on his knees on the court when he played Borg. This was, after all, the guy who played a Roland Garros match on the 25th anniversary of Borg's first title there in a rendition of the Fila kit that Borg made famous.

As it turned out, Meligeni did not genuflect, and he had to notch up his game before he got the best of Borg. He said of Borg afterwards, "He still plays incredible. The stronger I was hitting, the faster the ball came back – that’s the mark of the great players. When he played on clay, he used to position himself on court a bit more behind the baseline; here, on hardcourts, he changes pace a lot, is continuously moving forward and back. He anticipates very well and plays flatter and more aggressive when he has to. He’s still a great player”.

Actually, in that last match against the lefty Brasilian wild card, Borg’s used his backhand more agressively than in previous matches - and I swear Bjorn hit a lot of backhands a la Connors, striking the ball hard and flat, on the rise. He seemed more vulnerable when Meligeni was hitting behind him, but he still displayed a dynamic on-court presence and never hesitated to make transitions in order to try to finish the point at the net. His volleys, though, are still poorly executed – if there’s one shot I still remember from the famous 1980 Wimbledon final, it's that easy volley that Borg horribly shanked into the bottom of the net to give McEnroe The Tiebreaker, 18-16.

Meligeni qualifed for the championship match by virtue of his win over Borg, and he was crushed in the final by Sergi Bruguera. I qualified, too - for a one-on-one interview with the legendary Swede. I'll reprint that interview in Part 2.

-- Miguel Seabra

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Posted by lulu 10/04/2007 at 02:44 PM

where have JMac's curls gone ? :'(

Posted by zolarafa 10/04/2007 at 03:46 PM

haven't read the post yet! have to type "FIRST!!!!!"

Posted by zolarafa 10/04/2007 at 03:47 PM

oh, dang it!

Posted by fedfan 10/04/2007 at 03:49 PM

Before I was fedfan, I was Borgfan. Thank you for this great posting!

Posted by sean m 10/04/2007 at 03:53 PM

i think many of us, as fans and amateur historians of the game, have the fantastic notion that great champions should ascend to tennis' valhalla, where they will swill mead and trade groundies with the other greats of the game. to have watched borg twist and wriggle himself into and out of so many self-destructive, and humiliating, episodes over the 25 years since his retirement has been the most painful public dethroning of an ex-champion. others, like mcenroe and so far agassi, have used their celbrity and passion for tennis to move on and carve successful post-competition careers (mcenroe's game show notwithstanding). wilander has gone on to be a coach of no great distinction yet, but definitely a respectable citizen of the sport. edberg, lendl, connors, and thus far sampras, have receded into their chosen privacy. the only other champion who has come close to borg's self-selected ignominy is becker. even then, boris hasn't had to move into his parents' house and have them assume control of his finances.

so reading miguel's warm and hopeful portrait of the 2007 version of borg is tremendously heartening. his talent for striking a tennis ball and his otherwordly ability to steel his nerves at the most crucial moments engendered a resevoir of goodwill and idolatry that few people ever experience. perhaps that's what he needed to flee from and is what motivated all of his damning escapades after retirement. perhaps he will find a way to fashion it together with his newfound center and find a greater glory. perhaps this borg, after crossing the badlands of midguard, can finally take his place in the royal hall of tennis warriors.

Posted by harini 10/04/2007 at 04:41 PM

I love the picture! Big Mac doesn't look very happy. Not that Borg does but Mac looks like he's frowning.

That was a really nice read. My mom is a HUGE fan of Bjorn Borg and I'm sending this to her because she'll enjoy it tonnes.

Posted by The player formerly known as Thomas Muster 10/04/2007 at 04:45 PM

Very nice piece on Muster as well, however, I think you are mistaken with Muster and wooden racquets. Tom played his entire career with the new racquets -- he never used a wooden one on the ATP tour.

Posted by Miguel Seabra 10/04/2007 at 05:09 PM

Hi guys, thanks.

'Former Thomas Muster', that wooden racquet bit needs more clarifying (that part was a bit long and Pete had to cut it a bit, hehe): what I wanted to mean was that Thomas Muster learned how to play with a wooden racquet when he was a kid; of course, I'm fully aware that when he started grabbing attention on the pro tour he was already using the Head Prestige and that excelent racquet frame (more or less updated until today) accompanied him most of the time throughout his career and it's the one he is using again (with maybe a slightly bigger headsize) -- after he tried a longer frame around 1997-1998 (called Toms Machine, a frame produced by Kneissl?) that helped him play better on fast courts but lose his timing and confidence on clay... a confession he made after losing the Estoril Open final in 1998, whilst he used a regular frame in his 1995 and 1996 wins here in Portugal.

Having said that (Thomas beginning with a wooden frame), it was obvious in the match versus Borg that the swede had played with a wooden frame most of his pro career and Muster had made the transition much better, thus taking way much more advantage of the midsize graphite frame than Borg (especially in topspin production). For instance, Nadal can only play the way he does because since very early in his career he was using an oversized widebody frame and that Babolat cannon is almost like an extension of his own arm...

I think I have some more on that subject (racquet use) somewhere, if I find it I'll post it here later on or tomorrow. And, 'Former Thomas Muster', if you'd like to read some more stuff I wrote about the Ogre of Leibnitz, check last year's posts on the 'Senior Tour' category on the right column.

Posted by Sam 10/04/2007 at 05:11 PM

Miguel: Nicely written piece. Looking forward to part two.

Interesting take on why Agassi was able to play longer than Sampras - hadn't considered the racquet factor. But Sampras played at a consistently high level most of his careers, not taking the type of sabbaticals that Agassi did (and associated peaks and valleys), which helped extend the latter's career.

Posted by Pete 10/04/2007 at 05:14 PM

And right you are TPFKATM, it was an error created in editing, not Mikey's oversight. . .

Posted by KP 10/04/2007 at 05:49 PM

thanks for posting, I was looking for your posts on this back in August(because I remembered your posts last year), I gave up hope on seeing them!

Is there anyway you could post a full transcript of your interview? You can email me if its easier. You said that Borg "feels he should have won perhaps two titles in New York," I'm curious to know what his exact words were.

I'm also curious if he would trade any of his FOs for a US. From ny observations(& from looking at the media coverage of the time) the French was clearly behind the US Open in the 70s in terms of prestige. I think most players of that time would take the W/US double over the FO/W double if they had a choice. Prize money was so much bigger at the US Open than the others slams. Borg & Evert both skipped a FO due to WTT in their primes, I doubt they would have considered doing that to the US Open. As you said, pre Chatrier the French was in the dumps. Which is another reason its so hard to compare players, not all slams were always equal.

And Borg is so right about records, when he won his 11th major at the '81 French, I heard no mention by the media at all that he was nearing Emerson's alltime record of 12 majors. I wonder why. Pete, do you have any idea why no one cared about this record in the media back then, yet became so obssesed with it when Sampras was getting close to it in the 90s?

Poor Borg(& Mac & Connors). That their total # of slam titles is used to judge them by fans today seems incredibly unfair. They were a lot better than those numbers show.

And I really hate the post-match celebrations by players today, most seem so fake & just for the camera.

Posted by Kara L. 10/04/2007 at 05:50 PM

Watched the Wimbledon Final in '81 again and because everybody was dubbing it the original "Roger-Rafa" rivalry, I was looking for something distinct about each player to latch on to in order to compare them to the current guys. Someone once wrote an article called "Will the true heir to Borg please stand up?" when discussing Roger and Rafa and the writer appeared to be befuddled as to who was really destined for the mantle of Bjorn. Nadal has all the stylistic and technical qualities of Borg but it's Federer who has Borg's ice-cold disposition down pat, which makes for an interesting contrast. By the end of the match even I was confused since I couldn't figure out who Roger and Rafa were supposed to be if I was watching their spiritual predecessors: Connors and McEnroe insist that Federer is Borg-like but technically Federer has more in common with McEnroe. It's a strange puzzle.

Posted by Bob 10/04/2007 at 06:15 PM

This is a great article. It looks from the photo that both Borg and McEnroe are unhappy about a line call.

I don't regard any single match as the "most important" match in tennis, but that one was as memorable as any. That image of Borg is perhaps the most famous. They compared it to Federer's first Wimbledon win photo and it was almost identical. Nobody thought that at that moment Borg would only win one more slam, and play in only three more finals. It would certainly be an honor to play him.

The slams just werent' that big a deal back then. Borg only played in one AO. Connors only played in two AOs, and didn't play the FO for five prime years, 1974-1978. Evert skipped three straight FOs when she was unbeatable on clay, or she might have 21 slams and 7 straight FOs. It's nice to see Borg back in the game and happy. He was having some financial problems a few years back, and I don't think he realized how popular he was among tennis fans. I frankly think coaching Roddick has made Connors happier. Both of them are such legends that they belong in the game somehow, and both of them had deserted it for many years. There wasn't as much depth back then, but these are players who would have been at the top in any era.

Posted by KP 10/04/2007 at 06:23 PM

Kara, Borg was balanced from all areas of the court. Did you notice the distribution of winners from Borg? He had a lot of winners off the serve, from the ground & at the net. While Mac had almost all his winners off the serve or the net. So who's the more complete player? If Fed is considered a complete player today(coming to the net far less than Borg), not sure why its a stretch to compare Borg to Fed.

Really, no one played like Mac. I don't see any similarities with him and & any other player past & present. Laver's groundgame was so much better than Mac's, who just used them as a way to kill time before getting to the net.

Borg's 5th set performance in the '80 W Final many be the most clutch tennis performace I've seen. after losing an 18-16 tiebreak in which he lost several match points, you'd think he'd have a letdown.

Borg served at 74% in the fifth set. He made 23 of 31 first serves and won five games at love. He went down love-30 in the opening game and won the next 19 points on his serve; he lost a point at 4-all and then won another 9 before breaking McEnroe in the last game. He made 2 aces and no doubles in the set.

Borg won 21 of 23 points on first serve, or 91%. He won 7 of 8 points on second serve, or 88%. He drew a return error from McEnroe on 9 first serves and one second serve.

Borg came in behind all his first serves and stayed back on all his second serves. He also came to net 7 other times, all of them in his own service games, and won six. His winning rate on approaches, in sum, was 27 of 30, or 90%. Doesn't sound Nadal-like to me.

Posted by Miguel Seabra 10/04/2007 at 06:26 PM

Hey, Pedro -- thanks for clarifying it, and... great title!

Hi KP (K. Rosewall, eh!); the delay had to do me and Pete being on vacation and, as you can understand, as soon as the US Open came it had to have priority over everything else!

Regarding Bjorn's interview, Pete said he will post the one-on-one on a second part and right now where I am I don't have the document with the whole story; that one-on-one was taped so the quotes are accurate, whereas some things he said at the press conferences I wrote them down immediately in portuguese in my notebook and then had to translate them back to english when I wrote this piece (duh!).

Borg's sentence about «back then, no-one cared about records» really opened my eyes -- to me, it was about the most important thing he said and put a lot of things in perspective. And you're right, maybe he would trade one of his Roland Garros titles for a US Open crown (though he still is too proud to admit it).

Things were completely different in the 70ies. I remember interviewing Ilie Nastase and discussing him running out of racquets in that Wimbledon final versus Stan Smith and he was a bit upset by my astonishment -- one has to realise that, back then, THERE WEREN'T EVEN CHAIRS for the players to sit on during changeovers!

And guys: which Grand Slam triumphant match-point celebration first comes to your mind when you think about it? To me, it still is Bjorn Borg's in that 1980 Wimbledon epic, but in a flash I can also visualise:
-- Roger Federer throwing himself on the floor after winning last year's US Open (he repeated it at this year's Wimbledon)
-- Boris Becker raising his index after beating Michael Chang at the Australian in 1996
-- Stefan Edberg ducking on the floor in the Wimbledon 1988 final (Becker wanted to open a hole in his belly, but the ball never passed the net haha)
-- Pete Sampras sobbing after beating Pat Rafter and the record at Wimbledon 2000
-- Goran's eyes at Wimbledon 2001
-- Andre Agassi kneeling after beating Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 1992

It was in this particular order, I don't know why (ask Freud). But the moment I felt happier was when Goran won -- I don't quite remember the exact gesture he made when he won, only the extreme happiness he felt and I'm still touched by tit when I watch that final again (on the BBC, on the rain breaks at Wimbledon...).

Posted by Sam 10/04/2007 at 06:38 PM

Miguel: For me, as a longtime Goran fan, it was Goran at Wimbledon 2001. Such an emotional reaction, after being close so many times. I also liked Novotna's reaction after winning Wimbledon in 1998, after her own near misses there.

Posted by Rosangel 10/04/2007 at 06:54 PM

Hi Miguel! I've been looking forward to this piece, and am waiting for the cliffhanger to be resolved (why does Bjorn think Rafael Nadal will win Wimbledon in 2008?). You have also persuaded me that it's time to pull out the official DVD of that 1980 final, and watch it again. When I was at Wimbledon for Davis Cup, I managed to buy a DVD with some rare footage of Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall versus Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert in the 1953 Davis Cup CHallenge Round, which I'm really looking forward to watching, but it's at least five years since I watched Borg-McEnroe 1980, so I'll look at that first. I have a recording of that fateful last US Open final too....

Very interesting to hear Borg's take on how the Slam records were viewed (or not) in his day. Especially as it confirms my earlier view about the Australian Open.

I got the sense that Borg himself may have had something to do with the increasing popularity of Roland Garros in the 1970s.

I'm planning to see Borg at the BlackRock Masters in December, here in London - I do hope he'll play McEnroe there (this is one time when the draw for the round robin definitely requuires rigging).

From what I've seen in the press recently - and now this article - Borg seems to have reached a period of contentment in his life. For a long-term fan, that's certainly satisfying.

I'm happy that he still doesn't like losing matches, though:)

Posted by Aabye 10/04/2007 at 07:03 PM

I think it's great to have Bjorn Borg back and playing JMac again. Now, don't know if this is too much off topic but, I for one am always fascinated how everyone seems to compare both Nadal and Fed to Borg. I know a lot of that has to do with both of them gunning for his FO and Wimby records respectively, and that they both have come so close to that amazing FO-Wimby double. But their games are so different, it always makes me laugh.

Posted by Ruth 10/04/2007 at 07:18 PM

Love the post, Miguel.

I am fascinated by Borg's saying that in those days, no one worried or talked about records. Being old enough to remember those days (and earlier days) of tennis when that was absolutely true, I have to think that it was simply a reflection of the way people felt about tennis -- the gentlemen's/ladies' game, the playing for the love of the game, the importance of sportmanship et al. To think of records, especially -- God forbid -- records based on the QUANTITY of wins would have been inappropriate,if not downright crass.

Ah, now I understand why this old lady does not think that Roger will be the GOAT as soon as he wins 15 Slams or 15 slams including the French Open or any of that stuff.

Thanks, Miguel.

Posted by Samantha 10/04/2007 at 07:19 PM

It's absolute non-sense when people say the reason Borg retired was because he couldn't beat Mac. Borg retired because he was burned out and had a series of problems that had nothing to do with Mac. The failed suicide attempt, his marriage problems and there were some drug issues. If Borg had come back in his prime at 26 and fully committed to tennis, he would have destroyed Mac. Without Borg and the appeal he had for people all over the world, tennis wouldn't have been popular. My mom has old tapes of him and the girls just went crazy when they saw him and would follow him all over the world. Borg put tennis on the map. Mac was an American star, but Borg was an international star. When I tell people I'm from Sweden, the first thing they say is Borg country. Everyone knows him, no matter where you go, or what age. There will never be anyone like him again. I hope he continues to play for a long time. One last thing, if Borg was on that team in Sweden, during the last Davis Cup, we would have sent the Americans packing and that is a fact. Go Sweden!

Posted by Samantha 10/04/2007 at 07:20 PM

I got a little excited, so I forgot to say great post Miguel, I loved it.

Posted by KP 10/04/2007 at 07:21 PM

Ashe's raised fist after beating Connors in '75 probably remains one of the most famous tennis images. Many thought it was a "black panther" salute(it wasn't)

Guga drawing a heart in the clay and lying down in it after winning the '01 French was pretty memorable.

I love Fed, but he overdoes it a bit, it seems like he's falling down & crying after every slam win, & almost all his major finals are extremely one-sided, & he's been the overwhelming favorite to win all of them(except his FO finals of course, & his first final vs Philippoussis), so I don't get the show.

The ones I remember the most:

Mac vs Borg, 1980 US Open final, probably the most anticipated major final of the Open Era. Mac didn't fall down but leaned back limbo style & screamed as loud as I've ever heard him. Probably the most overjoyed I've ever seen him.

Mandlikova vs Navratilova, one the best shots on match point ever, in a 3rd set tiebreak no less, Hana sticks a backhand volley from just inside the service line & falls flat on her back, arms raised.

Bruguera vs Courier, probably the best match point in a major final I've seen. Courier was just unloading on every shot & Bruguera was running like crazy, Courier made his way to net, hit a volley that caught Bruguera off balance, but he was still able to flick a passing shot winner while barely on his feet before falling down on his back.

Sampras vs Agassi, '95 US Open final. Sampras did his trademark raised arms celebration, but after he sat down in his chair, he addressed the camera saying, 'wish you could be here timmy,' looking visibly emotional.

sabatini vs graf, '90 us open, sabatini hits a passing shot winner that looks more out than in(which graf looks po'ed about) & jumps for joy. That girl had hops.

Becker's severe racquet throw after winning both '89 W & US Open. He hurt a fan with his racquet in the latter & stopped doing that afterwards.

also he wents nuts after winning the '91 AO, running off the court right after match point. That win gave him the number one ranking for the 1st time, which I gather was as big to him that day as winning another major.

Someone should put together a reel of all Becker's match point celebrations, I think his were the most memorable, pure joy, even the ultra subdued Becker that just quitetly looked at his wife after winning his last major.

Posted by Sam 10/04/2007 at 07:57 PM

KP: Some great ones in your list, especially the Guga and Mandlikova ones. That Mandlikova-Navratilova USO final is one of my favorite matches of all time. The Sampras moment where he addressed Tim Gullickson was wonderful and poignant.

Posted by Ruth 10/04/2007 at 08:02 PM

OK, you've done it, Miguel and KP, with all this nostalgia talk. I haven't played anything on my old VCR since my son forced me to start using the DVD/DVR, but I have just dug up my tape with my Wimbledon Classics, and I'm going to enjoy looking at them -- and their memorable endings -- again: JMac/Connors '82, Ashe/Connors '75, Graf/Novtna '93.

KP: I remember Ashe's "greeting" Connors at the net -- almost Patty-esque! :)

Posted by KP 10/04/2007 at 08:02 PM

Ruth, in Borg's day there were some important records, when he won his 4th straight Wimbledon it was a really big deal, for the entire previous year writers/fans were talking about that mark(Fred Perry had the previous mark of 3) Borg was very aware of that record when he set it & wanted it to remain(remember he called Fed to thank him for beating Sampras in '01, denying him a chance for 5 straight. Borg is classy, but he is also fiercely competitive & proud of his championships. He was probably the most famous athlete in the world when he played, kinda like a Michael Jordan, not a Sampras or Federer who are just tennis players in comparison, I think its a stretch to imply it was a kindler, gentler game back then-maybe it was in Laver's time-but it was a huge, global, world class sport in Borg's time, they weren't just playing for a couple beers, tennis offered more prize money & endorsements than most other sports back then, it was intense. Borg was the richest athlete in the world in 1980.)

Also, Borg's main goal after winning Wimbledon was the Calendar Grand Slam, that's why he skipped the AO all those years after losing the US Open. If he won the US Open in '78,'79, or '80, he would have played the Australian with a broken leg if need be. Ditto with Mac, the AO was only important if you won the previous 3(remember it was in December back then)

Borg said his goal many times was to be the best ever(& back then only someone with the Real Grand Slam would be considered, not someone with the most majors) when he was playing, I wouldn't read too much into his 'records' comment he was just talking about the new importance of the Australian Open & the Atp's recent silly surface 'records.' He sure as heck wasn't playing for just the 'love of the game,' he skipped the French in '78 because WTT offered him a ton of money, not because he wanted to play for fans in Podunk, Nebraska or something.

If the media or the atp (which was a mess) were talking about Emerson & his 12 majors all the time when Borg was a rising player(& if the AO offered some decent prize money, it was really a joke compared to so many other events of the time, not just the other majors), you can be damn sure he would have went for the all time slam record as well.

So I don't think his 'records' comment was a reflection of the way people felt about tennis, but a reflection of how the tennis media/& the atp has changed. I wonder how many writers even bothered attending the Australian Open in the 70s/early 80s. Pete? Mac said he was even offered appearance money to play there in the early 80s! So the Australian back then was the equivalent of Tokyo today or something.

Maybe if Sharko worked for the atp in the 70s, some players would have cared about the Emerson mark.

Posted by Ren 10/04/2007 at 08:31 PM

Very nostalgic. I appreciate the article very much. I am a big fan of Borg, and Miguel's account of his meeting with Borg vicariously brought me to the 70's. What an article. I can hardly wait for the interview part. Kudos!!!

Posted by Ruth 10/04/2007 at 09:24 PM

KP: You make good points. I would bet that even the cavemen (and I don't mean the GEICO guys) and the Roman gladiators were consumed with being the BEST and the GREATEST at what ever they did. But I really don't remember (during the 70's and earlier) this obsession with accumulating the MOST of something as being a major preoccupation of tennis players. Maybe, as you said, there weren't enough statisticians keeping and comparing notes and -- records.

And I definitely wish that there was less emphasis on NUMBER of wins in tennis today. (Apologies for the many caps.)

Posted by omar 10/04/2007 at 09:57 PM

My biggest regret with Borg will always be that he didn't play one more year, 1982, before quitting. I think he would have won the Calender Grand Slam that year.

When Borg quit, the only guy that could beat him in a big match was McEnroe, but Mac had an off year in 82, as the pressure of being number 1 got to him and he didn't play as well in the biggies, winning 0 Slams that year. Connors came out of nowhere and won 2, with Wilander winning the other (the AO doesn't even count).

A 17 year old Mats Wilander would not have beaten his idol at the French, and Connors would not have beaten Borg at Wimbledon or the Open, IMO.

1982 would have been the one year where everything fell into place just right for Borg to take it all, but he didn't play any of the GS due to his disagreements with the Grand Prix over his commitment to only play 7 tournies in 82 instead of 10.

I've often wondered how tennis history would have changed if the Tennis Council had allowed Borg a one year exemption to play fewer than 10 tournies that year. The whole advent of the Wild Card is a direct result of the Borg issue that year.

Even though Borg didn't play on the tour that year, he did play a lot of serious exxos with McEnroe, Connors and Lendl that year (back when exxos used to still be played competitively by the pros) and more than held his own. When Lendl was in the middle of his big winning streak at the end of 82, he played Borg in a 4 man Invitational right in the middle of his streak and Borg beat him 7-6 7-6 on a fast indoor.

Then you're looking at 15 Slams instead of 11, and he still could have retired at exactly the same age, 26. Remember, he retired at 26, but he quit playing the GS when he was 25.

That's why, as great as Fed has been, even he hasn't accomplished as much as Borg by the same age.

Borg is to tennis what the Yankees are to baseball and the Cowboys are to football.

Posted by skip1515 10/04/2007 at 10:11 PM

While Borg may have been the richest athlete in the world in his day, I'll suggest that records weren't the be all and end all because even the top pros were still worried about making money. See Ruth's mention of Borg's passing up the French for WTT as proof.

When Borg won Wimbledon for the first time, in 1976, it was only 5 years since Laver had become the first player to win $100,000 in prize money in a year. I'd never poo poo $100K, but when you pay your own expenses for a year's worth of travel, lodging and food, and support a family, well, let's just say prudent investing was still a good idea.

Or, to put it another way, training in Dubai during your off weeks wasn't part of a financially valid training regime.

As prize money lost its value as a measure of success (esp. in light of team sports' salaries), and the ranking/seeding/race points, etc., became more arcane, the number of major titles became an easy way to assess a player's accomplishments. Computerized decisions regarding the year end #1 also made the majors more valuable, since they added the most points to one's record. (Previous to the computer rankings the year end #1 was "decided" by a panel of experts.)

Then, too, television caught on to the majors, and that had to have raised their profile with the more general public.

Nice post, Miguel. I look forward to to the sequel.

Posted by Aabye 10/04/2007 at 10:13 PM

Sorry, Kara L. I had not seen your post, but that was exactly what I was getting at, only you said it first.

Posted by Kara L. 10/04/2007 at 10:51 PM

Part of the mythos of Bjorn Borg was the fact that he called it quits relatively early, leaving the game as a semi-tragic figure whose exploits left a lot of room for conjecture and imagination. 'What if' is always a much more romantic proposition than cold hard facts and that air of mystery about Borg is probably why he's become a huge popculture icon. Can you think of another tennis player whose exploits inspired a character like Richie Tenenbaum, right down to the attempted suicide and all?

As for Borg being the GOAT, I'd have to disagree with that contention. His strokes weren't particularly inventive but he was a superlative athlete. Not a particularly smart man, however.

Posted by The player formerly known as Thomas Muster 10/04/2007 at 11:31 PM

Fantastic piece Miguel and another outstanding answer to my nit-picking!

Also, Muster just turned 40 this week so the Austrian newspapers are full of interviews with him -- his humor is even drier than it used to be!

Posted by jb 10/05/2007 at 08:40 AM

Very nice post Miguel. Love the pic of 'the boys' - but my oh my do they look grumpy. Definately looking forward to part deux.

Kara L I think has hit the nail on the head... the 'what if' speculation will always be unanswered, and provides incredible fodder for debate. With any young player, their potential and what they may accomplish provides for endless debate and chitchat - until their career unfolds and the debate is ended.

With Borg - the debate will go on and on, as his career, while over, didn't end 'properly'.

Very nice to see though that Borg seems to have found a happy balance in his life.

Posted by omar 10/05/2007 at 12:09 PM


Borg did not play WTT for the money. He played WTT because his new girlfriend and future wife, Mariana, had already committed to the tour, and the only way Borg and Mariana could travel and be together was if he too joined the tour, since she wasn't willing to quit tennis yet.

Of course, once he decided to play the tour, he made sure he was well compensated, but if he had never met Mariana he would have never played WTT. He was in love.

But once again, even if Borg had played 2 or 3 more years and broken every record there is, that doesn't mean he would be the No. 1 GOAT. You really can't compare players from different eras based on stats or records.

The best you can say is that a particular player was the best of his or her era, and an all-time great. Anything further than that is just make-believe.

But I'd rather go out like Borg did than to go out like McEnroe, who disgraced himself the last few years he played with his court behavior. At least Borg's issues were personal ones that we never had to see publicly displayed on Center Court.

It's better to burn out than fade away.

Posted by Maplesugar 10/05/2007 at 12:43 PM

Great post...thanks a lot.

Posted by KP 10/05/2007 at 01:00 PM

thanks omar, I assumed Borg played WTT because of some major $ being offered. If that wasn't the case, do you know why so many other top players played WTT? Evert, the undisputed GOAT on clay, skipped the French 3 times in her prime to play WTT! If it wasn't about the money, why else would she play WTT? Of course I've seen footage of some of those womens FO finals in the 70s, there were like 10 fans in the stands. Maybe she wanted to play where she would be appreciated instead of being booed by the French.

as far as other Borg stories, I read in SI in the 70s that Borg said that his ambition was to win so many titles that anyone looking at the record would have to say that this man was the greatest of all time, so he did care about records(just not that minor event called the Australian Open. I have the Year in Review edition of Tennis Magazine from the late 70s/early 80s, they have a chart which shows how the top 50 did in the 'big 3' events those years,excluding the Australian Open completely.And in Borg's autobiography(pub 1980) he says his priorities were the 'big events' naming the French, Wimbledon, US Open, making no mention of the Australian Open at all!

Posted by KP 10/05/2007 at 01:18 PM

found this interview from 2001, I'm most interested in the comment that Sweden has/had grasscourts??

"You have six French titles, five Wimbledons. In retrospect, do you regret not playing the Australian, giving yourself a shot at that title as well?

I have no reason for any regrets. When I boycotted the Australian, I was trying to make a statement. I had made my mind up. My point was that a player requires some time to himself, he can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break.

They all heard me say that, but no one did anything about it. So I did it myself, I skipped the Australian and gave myself the time I needed. That was the only way I could think of, to do it. I have always played my tennis and lived my life on my own terms, I have no regrets.

Claycourt greats have tripped up on the Wimbledon grass, and vice versa. Yet you regularly won both, year after year? Was it that easy for you to adapt?

You are a complete tennis player only if you can handle all surfaces. It was not easy, no, but the fact that I played a lot in Sweden which has lots of indoor clay courts, and also great grass courts outdoors, was an advantage, that did help me. I used to play for long periods on both surfaces. I would think though that grass is my surface, I love playing on grass and I think I play very well on that surface."

One important thing he doesn't mention is that the year end Masters(in New York) was basically played immediately after the AO in those days(AO started around 12/24. Masters started around 1/13. That's a pretty tough turnaround, no? There would be a riot if players of today had to deal with that kind of schedule. And looking through the past draws, it seems like virtually none of the top 8 that qualified for the Masters back then bothered playing the AO. The Masters was a much bigger deal(& offered more $$)

Posted by 70's tennis fan 10/05/2007 at 03:08 PM

Great post. Thank you.

One Slam final that I remember from my long distant past was Vilas being mobed by the crowd when he won the US (1977 ?) Conners just stood, ignored,on the baseline. I think that this must have been one of the first tennis matches I saw on TV (probably on the news or something)

Off to the Black Rock myself in December. Hope the mighty Borg plays.

Posted by omar 10/05/2007 at 04:36 PM


I can't speak on why other players decided to play WTT, I can only speak on what I know. What I know is that Borg was trying to figure out a way where he could play in 77 and be with Mariana everyday, and this was the only solution.

Now, don't blame the guy for getting paid extremely well once he made that move. But I'm telling you, before Borg hooked up with Mariana in June of 76, WTT was not on his mind.

But this just backs up my point about how you can't judge the greatest ever based on GS titles, because they mean different things at different times. The 4 biggies in Borg's time were Wimbledon, US Open, French and Masters, and Borg skipped the French once in his prime and the Masters twice. So it goes. Can you imagine Fed skipping Wimbledon next year to play a big money exxo? Times have changed.

I'm headed out to see my daughter now. Have a great weekend everyone.

Posted by KP 10/05/2007 at 06:25 PM

October 5, 2007

Twenty-six years have passed since Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe faced each other in their last Wimbledon final, but they showed all of their old magic, skill and determination in a thrilling clash in Eindhoven on Friday.

McEnroe saved set points in both of the first two sets to edge through 7-6(6), 7-6(4) in their first meeting on the BlackRock Tour of Champions for five years.

“The greatest matches I’ve ever played in my life have been against Bjorn, and I just want to say to him, welcome back to the BlackRock Tour of Champions!” said McEnroe.

“He’s a freak of nature. He’s still so fit and I was getting really nervous at the end because it’s a huge crowd here and any time I play Bjorn you don’t know you’ve won until the end.”

Borg, 51, had done well just to get out on the court after a stomach virus kept him from playing on Thursday, but he was in inspired form as he repeatedly passed McEnroe the opening set.

The 48-year-old American appeared to wrestle control at 5-3 in the first set tie-break, but Borg broke back for 5-4 when a lucky net-chord was called to have bounced twice before McEnroe could reach it.

McEnroe felt it had only bounced once, and let the umpire know in no uncertain terms.

After a lengthy delay for the ensuing row, Borg won two more points to earn a set point at 6-5, but McEnroe snuffed it out with a huge first serve. He won the next two as well to take the set 8-6 on the Tie-Break.

If McEnroe thought Borg would go away in the second set he would have been mistaken. The Swede twice forced 0-30 on the American’s serve early on, but couldn’t capitalise.

Then he forced two more set points at 5-4, the first with a stunning two-handed cross-court winner that left McEnroe sprawling.

The New Yorker saved them both though, the first as a Borg backhand went an inch long, and the second with a big first serve.

McEnroe led the second set Tie-Break 3-0, Borg fought back for 3-3, but a fabulous McEnroe backhand return followed by a sensational drop-shot gave him victory.

Posted by David Law 10/05/2007 at 06:48 PM

Nice stuff Miguel.

I was at their match tonight and it was just electric.

Seriously, these guys just do something to a crowd that I've not witnessed before.

All of the other players in the event - Bruguera, Krajicek, Haarhuis, Steeb, Muster, Leconte - they all either stayed back or actually returned from the hotel so that they could watch it, and the place totally sold out - 5,000 people.

The quality was amazing when you consider there was 99 years worth of human beings out on the court.

I recorded some great audio from the match (including a vintage McEnroe rant) and the post-match press conference for use in the next BlackRock Tennis Champions Podcast, which we'll put out next week.

The last one was good fun to do - going to the rugby world cup with Mac and the rest who all enjoyed it but hadn't got a clue what was going on.

Have a look here if you fancy a listen:

Back to Borg briefly - the only person I've ever seen who has the same effect on people as him is Diego Maradona.

It's actually quite frightening being around the frenzy that he creates.

Still, it's also a total privilege.

So good that he's come back, and in such good shape. He'll play events in Liege (Belgium), Frankfurt (Germany), Sao Paulo (Brazil), London (UK) and Belfast (Northern Ireland) in the coming few months.


David Law

Posted by jb 10/05/2007 at 09:11 PM

thanks for the heads up re: the podcasts David!

Posted by Dee 10/06/2007 at 12:33 AM

Great article, but it would have been nice if Miguel or someone can post a link to THE image that Miguel (Mikey??) wrote so passionately about - The Wimbledon Final of 1980 with Borg kneeling "in disbelief"...... thanks!

Posted by 10/06/2007 at 11:06 AM

Kara L- I would say Roger is more like Mac because he is an all-court player, he can come in and serve and volley if he wants to, he's got the angles, etc. So game-wise I say Roger = Mac, Rafa = Borg. In the off-court stuff, I say Rafa is more like Borg. When he first announced himself to the world in '05, he created a huge stir (in a good way) because he was so different from the norm. Plus he's got the whole thing going with the ladies- maybe not the sex-symbol status Borg had (because Roger's got a few admirers himself) but the closest we've seen someone emulate Borg in that category.

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