When he was king

Bjorn Borg

By Tim Pears, the Observer, Sunday 5 June 2005

They called him the ice man, but there was so much more to Björn Borg than cool detachment and a wispy beard. Twenty-five years after the Swede’s last and greatest Wimbledon triumph, award-winning novelist Tim Pears offers a remarkable portrait of the rebellious teenager who became an accidental Nordic mystic – and an all-time great.

‘I think Björn’s greatest victory was not the way he came to master his ground strokes, but the change he underwent, with terrible determination, to tame his passionate spirit.’ Lennart Bergelin, Borg’s coach

Was ever a great champion so misunderstood, even in the broad light of his glory, as Björn Borg? By the time of the Wimbledon championships of 1980, when he was 24, he had won the grass-court competition each of the four preceding years, as well as the French Open, on clay, five times. On contrasting surfaces that required radically different approaches, this was an achievement without precedent. And yet the calm young master was widely regarded as an automaton, a robot. The Swede had is i magen: ice in his stomach. In the British press he was the ‘Iceberg’. His admirers no less than his critics described a man with cold blood running through his veins.

How wrong they were. Borg was not blessed with abundant talent, but the talent he had he surrendered to, with the devotion of an instinctive faith, until he achieved liberation. Borg was an inspiration and I wondered how others could not see that his heart was filled with joy for this game and that he hid this joy not to deny it, but rather to nurture its presence within him.

Eyes

Born on 6 June 1956, Borg was brought up in Södertälje, an industrial town of 100,000 people 30 minutes drive south-west of Stockholm, the only child of Margarethe and Rune, a clothes-shop assistant. He first appeared at Wimbledon in 1972, winning the junior title, a lanky Swedish youth with a straggle of blond brown hair. He had blue eyes that were so close together they appeared slightly crossed. He kept them averted from other people, betraying the shy evasion of a teenager who believes everyone is looking at him – the one object he focused on was a tennis ball when about to hit it. He had a sharp nose in a thin, feral face, with a long pointed chin; his wide shoulders were stooped and he walked with a rolling gait. And yet everywhere he went he was pursued by mobs of schoolgirls. Less a Viking, really, than an Arthurian knight, Borg was embraced by England. We were drawn to his modesty.
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From Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography The Outsider:

“The clay in Paris back then played incredibly slow, which meant hitting more balls per point than I had for a long time. I’d won my first two matches by staying faithful to my game, hitting it early, flat, close to the net, on the lines, basically attacking the ball instead of hanging back. And now I was playing Michael Chang, who was a mere 20 years younger than me.

The mercury had risen to over 100 degrees as I walked out onto the red clay of Roland Garros to face Chang, an opponent who was prepared to be there all day if necessary, to run down every ball. It’s kill or be killed. That turned out to be a bit too close for comfort.

We traded the first two sets, he took the third and then in the fourth I hit the wall for the first time in my life. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. I was done – fatigue, dehydration, everything. At one of the changeovers, as I looked around the stands, I turned to Lelly, who was sitting courtside. ‘Why are all these people here?’ I asked. Just a little out of my mind.

Doing things half-assed doesn’t fit my personality, and I hit that wall running so hard I managed to force my head through to the other side just long enough to hear a voice tell me, ‘Not yet Jimmy, not yet’. A couple in the crowd made a move to leave. ‘Don’t go’ I called to them. ‘This isn’t over yet’.

I broke Chang to go 5-4 up and held on to even the match at two sets each. ‘Allez Jeemeee! Allez, Jeemeee!’

After three hours 31 minutes, I faced my second fifth set in as many days. Wounded and exhausted, I dragged myself out of my seat. I knew I’d gone as far as I could. My back was seizing up, my vision blurred, head spinning? Kill or be killed? What asshole said that?

All through the months of hurt and sweat that had brought me to that moment in Paris, I’d only thought about one thing, the tournament that defined me, the US Open. New York in September.
To keep going against Chang would be insane, jeopardizing everything I’d been working toward. If I screwed up, if I injued myself, that would be it for the summer and probably forever. Yet I didn’t have a choice. The crowd wanted more. I thought ‘Come on Michael, let’s see what you’ve got’.

Chang serves the first point of the fifth set. I attack it with my backhand, sending the ball screaming down the line, clipping the baseline, leaving him with no response. Now I am done. Slowly I walk forward to the umpire Bruno Rebeuh‘s chair.

The score stands at 4-6 7-5 6-2 4-6 0-15. If you’ve got to quit, then do it when you’re ahead

Bill Norris, the ATP trainer and one of my friends on the circuit, helped me off the court. Bill had been around forever. I knew him well, and I knew he’d look after me. As we walked off, the Parisians came to their feet, cheering and clapping. That place rocked. They knew what they’d just witnessed, and I like to think they were saying merci.

Michael Chang

Michael Chang

Michael Chang

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors

Michael Chang

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors

That was pure class. Jimbo then reached the third round at Wimbledon (lost to Derrick Rostagno) and the semifinals at Flushing Meadows (lost to Jim Courier). He retired in 1996 at 44.

In 1991, two teenage terrors, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, exchanged bullets in an epic semifinal match at the US Open that altered the direction of women’s tennis.
Legendary tennis commentator Bud Collins described that match, which Seles won in a third-set tiebreaker, as “artillery bombardment.” For the New York Times, it was:

a slugfest conducted by a pair of teenagers whose strokes defied age, gender and the legal speed limit


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Jimmy Connors, 1991 US Open

Excerpt of Top 100 greatest days in New York City sports by Stuart Miller:

Jimmy Connors won five U.S. Opens on three different surfaces at two different places, yet he’s best remembered for a tournament in which he didn’t even reach the finals. That 1991 performance was the third and final act for Connors, who had won as the brash bully of the 1970s and as the curmudgeonly craftsman of the 1980s. This time Connors, seemingly washed up, transformed himself into a feel-good story for a society built on both a Peter Pan complex and the worship of true grit. This aging inspiration captivated even the most casual sports fans, attaining a new level of celebrity and forging an unforgettable legacy with his classic American blend of tenacity and showmanship.

That tournament, Connors said later, was “the most memorable 11 days of my career. Better than the titles.”

And he gave his growing legion of fans not one but three classic matches.

So which is your favorite? Bet you can’t choose just one.

You could select the first-round comeback against Patrick McEnroe on August 27.

Because it seemed incredible that Connors was even there. His iron man records—109 pro titles, 159 straight weeks at number one, 12 straight Open semifinals, and 16 straight years in the top 10—were in the past. Connors had played and lost three matches in 1990 before submitting to wrist surgery. He’d plummeted to 936th in the world, defaulted at the French Open in 1991 owing to a cranky back—the defining symbol of old age—and lost in the third round of Wimbledon; he was ranked just 174th by Open time and needed a wild-card berth just to gain entrance to his “home court.”

Jimmy-Connors 1991 US Open Tennis

Because he beat a McEnroe. Sure, Patrick, ranked just 35th, lacked the skill and artistic temperament of his famous older brother, but he was an Australian Open semifinalist and had beaten Boris Becker that summer.

Because this was the first time we saw Connors’s vibrant Estusa racket flashing through the night, proclaiming the return of the king.

Because he overcame the greatest deficit of all, dropping the first two sets to the steady McEnroe 6–4, 7–6, then falling behind 0–3 in the third. Connors was limping (an act, perhaps, lulling his prey or laying groundwork for an alibi), and the stadium was emptying, everyone writing Connors off. By the next game there’d be perhaps 6,000 loyalists from the original sellout crowd. According to Joel Drucker’s biography-memoir Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, even Connors’s staunchest supporter, his mother and first teacher Gloria, turned away from the television.

Then, at 0–40, one mistake from oblivion, Connors finally turned it on. And once he did, McEnroe could not finish off tennis’s Rasputin, who drew his lifeblood from the screaming, stomping, bowing fans that remained. Connors held, saved two more break points at 2–3, won five of six games for the third set, then snared the fourth set 6–2 and finished McEnroe off 6–4 in the fifth. The 4-hour-18-minute epic ended at 1:35 a.m. “The crowd won it for me,” Connors said. “The crowd was an awful heavy burden for Patrick.”
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Wimbledon Centre Court

1991 is the year Agassi made his comeback at Wimbledon after a 3 year boycott, the year another German (Michael Stich) won the Championships, but it’s also the year of the first Middle Sunday in Wimbledon history.
In his book Holding Court, Chris Gorringe then All England Club chief executive tells the story behind the first Middle Sunday, “the best and worst day of his life.”

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

Rudyard Kipling‘s words are boldly displayed in the All England Clubhouse, there to inspire players as they wend their way from the dressing rooms down to Centre Court. As I stood staring up at them in 1991, during the wettest Wimbledon in history, they has a striking resonance. The weather conditions had just forced us into scheduling an extra day’s play for the Middle Sunday of The Championships – but right now we had no tickets, no security, no catering, no umpires, no groundstaff, and no precedent to follow. Whether triumph of disaster lay ahead – who knew?

The worst start to The Championships

“It had been an absolutely dreadful start to the tournament. We had no play on the first Monday, and intermittent rain throughout Tuesday. Wednesday was even worse with just 18 matches played, and by the end of Thursday, things were dire. For the players, it was a terrible ordeal. It took Stefan Edberg, the defending champion, 73 hours to finish the first round match:

Thank God it’s over. I haven’t even been able to eat a decent lunch for four days

And he was on of the lucky ones – at least he had made it onto court. We were almost a third of the way through the tournament and yet had completed only 52 out of 240 scheduled matches. It was no surprise then, to find myself, chairman John Curry, Michael Hann, chairman of the order of play sub-committee, referee Alan Mills and Richard Grier, Championships director, gathered together during yet another rain delay, looking at the feasibility of play on Sunday – something that had never been done before.”

On Friday evening the decision was made to play on Middle Sunday for first time in Wimbledon history.

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