Bjorn Borg: The Tennis Biggest Drawing Card

Bjorn Borg

Borg polarized tennis in the 1970s. Known as the “ice man” for his frosty temperament on the court – never, ever letting his opponent get a hint of what was boiling inside him – Borg was the epitome of cool. Everything from the way he walked onto the court, to his long hair that flowed to his shoulders, to the headbands he always wore, to his Donnay racquet that featured a longer leather handle to accommodate his two-handed backhand, created hysteria.

A player of great athleticism and endurance, he had a distinctive style and appearance—bowlegged and very fast. His muscularity allowed him to put heavy topspin on both his forehand and two-handed backhand. He followed Jimmy Connors in using the two-handed backhand.

By the time he was 13, he was beating the best of Sweden’s under-18 players, and Davis Cup captain Lennart Bergelin (who served as Borg’s primary coach throughout his professional career) cautioned against anyone trying to change Borg’s rough-looking, jerky strokes.

Borg’s heavy topspin forehand and two-handed backhand became the craze. Everyone from recreational players to touring pros tried to emulate the style – not only in Borg’s stroke production but how he comported himself on the court with a controlled, emotional demeanor – but no one could come close.

He was tennis’s biggest drawing card. It was called “Borgmania.”

You’d have to search sporting annals long and hard to find an athlete in any sport that rose to meteoric heights like Borg, an 11-time major singles champion in just seven years (1974-81), who dramatically stunned and shocked the tennis world by retiring at age 26. Even in such a short period, Borg left an indelible legacy on tennis history. He won six French Open championships and four consecutively (1978-81).

Borg dominated Wimbledon like no other player since Willie Renshaw did when he won six straight championships (1881-1886), capturing five consecutive titles from 1976 to 1980, his five-set marathon victory over John McEnroe in 1980 considered one of the greatest tennis matches in history. Borg’s five titles at Wimbledon are the third highest in history behind Roger Federer (eight titles) and Pete Sampras (seven titles).

Borg’s name stands alone in a half dozen all-time best tennis records: He won 89.8 percent of his major matches; won three of his 11 major titles without losing a set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 French, 1980 French), captured three consecutive channel slams (French and Wimbledon) from 1978-80 and had 14 consecutive victories in major semifinals. At Wimbledon, his 92.7 winning percentage was based on a 51-4 record from 1973 -81 won’t likely ever be broken, nor will his 41 consecutive match-winning streak achieved from 1976-81. He reeled off a 49-2 (96 percent) winning streak at the French Open, second best to Nadal, a position he firmly holds.

He was born in Sodertaljie, an industrial town 20 miles outside of Stockholm. His tennis career began inauspiciously. His father had won a table tennis tournament when Borg was age 8. In the options of available prizes, young Björn asked his father to choose a tennis racquet. The very next day he was playing tennis with his friends and said he “loved the game from the beginning … from the first ball [he] hit.”

The unorthodox strokes that enamored Borg to worldwide audiences were rooted in his game from the outset and caught the attention of the Swedish Tennis Federation. While his strokes lacked style, his footwork was extraordinary.

In 1971 at age 15, Borg connected with a longtime coach and mentor Lennart Bergelin, who as Davis Cup Captain selected the scrawny and athletically raw teenager to play on Sweden’s Davis Cup team the following year. Bergelin was an integral part of Borg’s stardom. In 1972, before Davis Cup play, Borg made his presence known by winning the prestigious Orange Bowl in Miami over Vitas Gerulaitis in the boys’ under-18 final.

In 1973, as the No. 6 Borg made his professional debut at Wimbledon, losing in a five-set quarterfinal match to Brit Roger Taylor. Less than a year later, at the 1974 French Open, Borg became the youngest champion in history, when as an 18-year-old he devastatingly defeated Spain’s Manuel Orantes after dropping the first two sets, 2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.

Borg’s heavy topspin forehand and two-handed backhand became the craze. Everyone from recreational players to touring pros tried to emulate the style – not only in Borg’s stroke production but how he comported himself on the court with a controlled, emotional demeanor – but no one could come close.

Borg’s western grip, which he used on both sides, was unnatural, but it produced wicked topspin.

The grip limited his volleying proficiency, though he often released his left hand when at the net, but made his baseline game explosive. His topspin groundstroke game was potent and forceful – his backhand resembling a hockey slap shot – and a Borg hit ball would jump off the court like it was on fire and looking for water. While other pros dabbled in topspin play, Borg turned it into an art form on every single shot. No one strung their racquets as tightly as Borg: they had a distinct musical ping when strung to his demanding perfection.

Borg’s magic had dissipated, the years of stress, sacrifice, and travel had taken its toll and he succumbed to burnout. He took three months off in an attempt to rekindle his fire, but it had been doused. He played a string of exhibition matches and only one tournament in Monte Carlo throughout 1982. On January 23, 1983, while traveling in Bangkok, he announced his retirement at age 26. Borg flirted with comebacks in 1991, 1992, and 1993, but all to no avail.

When Borg retired from tennis in 1983 after a decade on the tour, he held the Open Era record for most major championships with 11. He is tied with Rod Laver for singles major wins. Roy Emerson ended his career, which spanned the amateur and Open Eras, with 12 singles titles.

The overall and Open Era marks have since been surpassed by Sampras (14), Novak Djokovic (15), Nadal (17) and current holder Federer (20). He is in the seventh position all-time in major final appearances (16). His 141-16 (89.8 percent) match record at the majors is nearly two percent better than Nadal’s, a record Borg has held for nearly three decades. He won two major titles in the same season three times, tied for second-best all-time with Sampras. His eight-year streak of winning at least one major title currently ranks second with Sampras and Federer. On clay, Borg won 93 percent of his matches (second best), 89 percent on grass (third best), and 85 percent on hard courts (sixth best).

Borg won 64 career tournament championships in singles (sixth best) in 88 final appearances and compiled a 609-127 record, which on percentage (83 percent) ranks second best in history.

He was the ITF champion from 1978-80 and the ATP Player of the Year from 1976-80. Those distinctions cemented his place among the all-time greats and didn’t need affirmation, but Borg received it when in his 1979 biography Jack Kramer had already listed the Swede among his 21 all-time great players. Although Borg, who rose to No. 1 in the world in August 1977, never won the US Open in ten attempts or the Australian Open (only entered once in 1974), outsiders made more of those “failures” than Borg.

His massive appeal, based not only on his extraordinary tennis ability but on his good looks and shy manner, made him a worldwide tennis teen idol.

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