By John Barrett, World Tennis 1985

Blame it on Borg. It was the phenomenal achievement in the late 1970s of the blond young Viking with the flowing mane and the rolling gait, as he plundered so many of the game’s greatest titles with seeming invincibility, that started the revolution. Between 1973 and 1980 the number of tennis players in Sweden doubled. Now, a decade after his first majour success – the capture of the French Open in 1974 as a 17-year-old – four of Bjorn’s fellow Swedes have ended 1984 ranked among the top 11 in the world – Mats Wilander (4), Anders Jarryd (6), Henrik Sundstrom (7) and Joakim Nystrom (11); a fifth, the 1983 World Junior Champion, Stefan Edberg, was at No 20.

For any nation (apart from the United States with its huge tennis community) that would have been a remarkable feat. For Sweden, with a total population of 8.5 million and only 125,000 registered tennis players, plus another estimated 275,000 who play occasionally, it is a miracle. And yet, hard as it is to believe after so much success, in this sports-mad country where 2.5 million of the energetic inhabitants participate regularly in some form of athletic activity, tennis is only the eighth most popular sport in terms of affiliated members.

As Borg grew into a national hero, it became the dream of every youngster who wielded a racket to emulate him. The municipalities throughout Sweden were beseiged by frustated parents who could not find anywhere for their children to play or anyone to teach them. Accordingly the local authorities were forced to embark upon an ambitious building programme, and with the northern climate allowing only a four-month outdoor season, that meant indoor courts. Some 200 of them are in Stockholm, the rest are dotted around the country – in twos and threes in small towns, in fours and sixes in larger towns – to provide ample opportunity for anyone with ambition. The proof that the system does indeed work can be found by looking at the home-towns of the five present leaders. They all come from different towns (not one is from Stockholm) and Nystrom hails from Skellefta, right up in the north of Sweden, where it would have been impossible to emerge without cheap indoor facilities.

This question of modest cost is another vital factor. The whole ethos surrounding Swedish sport is centred upon opportunity – the opportunity for any boy or girl with ability, regardless of his or her financial position, to be able to develop it and, most importantly to enjoy it. The average tennis club, which often belongs to the members, charges $10 or $20 per year as a membersip fee, which merely gives advance booking rights. Otherwise any member of the public can walk into any club and play on any free court by paying the modest hourly charges of $6-9. The structure perfectly fits the sophisticated nature of Swedish socialism. Through each of the country’s 23 Administrative Districts, the Swedish Sports Federation, founded in 1903, provides over the year many weekend courses, covering a wide range of subjects such as club administration, psychology and physiology and – in co-operation with the regional branches of the 57 Sports Associations – courses for trainers, umpires, officials and so on. Central Government makes an annual grant of $22-25 million to the Swedish Sports Federation; the county councils provide another $4-5 million for educational activities and the local authorities a further $70 million to help the 40,000 sports clubs with their pursuits.

It is all very-well integrated. Not only are there weekend courses for performers; the administrators and coaches are trained too. Herein lies the hidden strength of the Swedish system. In everry sport there are large numbers of amateurs helpers – organisers and coaches, who are often former high-level performers past the age of competiton – who give up their time to help the next generation. The Svenska Tennisforbundet, for example, have trained approximately 8,0000 amateur coaches and helpers during the past decade. Superimposed on this structure are the activities of the svenska Tennisforbundet’s main committees, each of which is mirrored at District level and again at Club level. Coaching for the most promosong of the young players is easily organised by these local organisations who nationally employ some 300 professional coaches, some full-time others part-time, based in selected clubs.

The Swedish Tennis Association’s share of the Government’s grant is about $300,000 which represents a quarter of the total income of $1.25 million. The balance comes from the Davis Cup (all the Swedish players sign contracts by which they agree to play for nothing in return for the help they received as juniors), from the Swedish Championships in Bastad, membership fees from affiliated clubs ($65,000 per year), from TV and radio fees, from equipment testing fees and, increasingly, from commercial sponsorship. Only about 6.25 per cent of the total income can be spared for junior training, which explains why the amateur coaches play such a vital role in the development chain.

The base of the pyramid is impressively wide, simply because the dedicated parents bing their offspring at an early age to the ‘Short Tennis’ sessions that are used to encourage the 5-8-year-olds to enjoy the experience of hitting a moving ball. These weekly meetings with their friends are not strictly coaching sessions but rather a way of detecting early whether or not a child has natural ball sense. In a strict but friendly atmosphere the youngsters learn, early and unconsciuosly, the need for discipline, and they really enjoy themselves because the sponge ball offers no danger of injury and the gentle nature of the bounce gives them a marvellous opportunity to sustain lengthy rallies. To watch a group of five or six-year-olds at one of these sessions is to know that they will grow to love tennis for the sheer joy it offers of performing a difficult skill well.

Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander:
Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander
Left: Henrik Sundstrom. Right: Anders Jarryd and the Simonsson brothers:
Sundstrom, Jarryd, Simonsson brothers

Leif Dahlgren, the Director of Education for the Swedish Association, does not underestimate the importance of parental attitudes:

“Without he wholehearted co-operation of the parents no youngster, however talented, will succeed. If Bjorn Borg’s parents had not been prepared to drive 20 miles a day in each direction to give Bjorn the early coaching with Percy Rosberg how could he have developped?”

At the top of the pyramid are the national squads in each of the age groups – 14 and under, 16 and under and 18 and under, which are the responsibility of one (or sometimes two) selected coaches. For the very best of the senior 18 and under players of 1981 lay the SIAB sponsored squad, the vehicle through which (thanks to the $125,000 the building company was prepared to invest each year) Wilander, Jarryd, Nystrom and Hans Simonsson emerged in senior tennis under the sympathetic control of Davis Cup captain, Jan-Anders Sjogren. This scheme was the forerunner of commercially sponsored national and local teams. Even the most optimistic supporters of the original scheme could hardly have envisaged the immediate success in 1982 when Wilander won the French Open at the age of 17 years, 9 months and 6 days, the youngest and the first unseeded player ever to win a Grand Slam Championship. Following Borg’s exploits this extraordinary achievement – along with the doubles success of Jarryd and Simonsson at the same Championships the following year – guaranted that the tennis boom in Sweden would accelerate.

The last, vital ingredient in this well-planned structure is competition. With regular weekend and annual competitions within the clubs and regions, it is inevitable that the strongest characters will emerge to earn selection for the national and international tournaments and team matches, plus the annual training camps, that are the recognised pathways to success. And because the competition is so widespread and begins around the age of 10 or 11, the ultimate champions in the various age groups can stand comparison with any in the world, as a glance at the honours board of the European Age Group Championships or the Orange Bowl Championships will readily prove. There you will find the same names – Borg, Wilander, Jarryd, Sundstrom, Nystrom and Edberg.

Perhaps the most important of all the domestic competitions is the Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) Cup, the tournament that inspired the present world-wide Sport Goofy Championships. Organised in three age groups for the boys – 11 and under, 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 – and two for the girls – 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 – this annual event, which began in 1970 with an entry of 1,137 has grown into arguably the largest tournament in the world with more than 13,000 entries per year. Small wonder that the winners of this gigantic event feel confident that they compete with anyone in the world. You will no longer be surprised to learn that among the past Kalle Anka champions are Borg, Wilander, Sundstrom, Stefan Simonsson and Edberg.

Something that worries the Swedes as much as it puzzles outsiders is the lack of comparable success among the Swedish girls. With all the same opportunities they have only two players in the top 100 – Catarina Lindqvist at 17 and Carina Karlsson at 95 – and little prospect of others joining them. It is an extraordinary contradiction that has no easy answer. Perhaps most telling is the lack of a folk hero in the Borg mould for them to look up to. If planning and effort can solve the problem, then it will soon be licked, for the new Volvo squad under the control of former French Open Champion and Swedish No.1, Sven Davidson, has all the brightest talent available. However, I have the feeling that girls as pretty and vivacious as the delightful Carina Karlsson, who made such an impression at Wimbledon last year, will find it hard to concentrate solely on her tennis. At least, I’m sure there are plenty of red-blooded young males who will make it hard for her!

Left: Joakim Nystrom. Right: Kent Karlsson:
Joakim Nystrom and Kent karlsson

Meanwhile the young Swedish males continue to set the pace at all age levels. Next on the senior horizon are the two Carlssons, Johan and Kent (no relation, by the way) who have been mopping up many of the 16 and 18 age-group titles between them, and seem destined to follow a path that is becoming all too familiar – and depressing if you were born outside Sweden! Like Bjorn himself and the entire present crop, these two display the same controlled courtesy on court that is so refreshing to spectators. When, in the fullness of time, we look back and try to analyse the contribution this remarkable group of young men have made to our sport, perhaps the most important element will be the restoration of a sense of pride and propriety on the court and a sense of comradeship and delight in the successes of their teammates off it. I can truly say it is always a delight to be in their company and takes me back to the cameraderie that used to exist among the great Australian players of the 1950s and 60s – men like Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, Neale Fraser, John Newcombe and Tony Roche … the list is endless. Come to think of it there is a strong parallel between the two eras with success breeding success. How appropriate that the young Swedes, like those Australians on so many occasions, have just won the Davis Cup.

How far the Swedish miracle has left to run only time will tell. At least they have their priorities right. Leif Dahlgren again:

In Sweden it is a widely accepted idea among trainers and leaders that young players should be trained early gradually to accept full responsibility for their own tennis. The sooner a player realises that whether he is going to become a top player or not depends on him and nobody else … the greater are his chances to achieve his goals… One might say that the most important job the trainer has to do is to make himself superfluous!

In fact what the Swedes have done is delighfully simple and holds lessons for the other tennis nations who strive mightily without producing results. By offering nationwide facilities cheaply, combined with coaching and competition, they have given their ambitious youngsters the opportunity to plumb the depths of their own personalities in a way that unlocks the hidden talent; then they have moulded that talent with imaginative leadership and not too much interference. What more could any young player in any country ask?

Pete Sampras

The second-ever World Tennis Day took place on Monday 3 March 2014. World Tennis Day aims to promote tennis and increase participation among players around the globe, and this year’s celebrations were centred around exhibitions featuring Grand Slam or Davis Cup champions, on three different continents:
Li Na vs Sam Stosur and Tomas Berdych vs Lleyton Hewitt in Hong Kong
Pat Cash vs Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras in London
Bob and Mike Bryan vs John and Patrick McEnroe, and Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic in New York

For the first time this year an event was organized in London, and obviously I couldn’t miss that! Read my recap below and stay tuned for more pics and videos.

Cardio tennis demo

To start the evening, a demo of cardio tennis, a group fitness activity featuring fast paced drills and games. It combines the best features of tennis with cardiovascular exercise.
It does not require tennis skills, but is all about keeping your heart rate up, burning calories and having fun. The main purpose is to get fit.

Cardio tennis

Cardio tennis

Ivan Lendl vs Pat Cash

First highlight of the evening, the one-set match between 9-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl and Wimbledon 1987 champion Pat Cash.

The Ivan Lendl from today is really different from the somewhat cold and robotic player he was back in the days. Believe me or not, Lendl was the real entertainer of the event, he kept talking and joking with the crowd and his opponent.

Ivan Lendl to Pat Cash:

Are you ok? I am supposed to be the old guy!

Cash attacked the net and Lendl demonstrated his back-court skills: drop shots, passing shots and powerful backhands. The Australian took the set 8-6.

Pat Cash, Andrew Castle, Ivan Lendl and Jonathan Ross:

Pat Cash and Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl

Pat Cash

Pat Cash

Pat Cash

Pat Cash

Below, Ivan Lendl being interviewed by fellow legend Mats Wilander:

Ivan Lendl

ITHF rings ceremony

The International Tennis Hall of Fame Class of 2014 was announced on Monday, newly elected Hall of Famers are: three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport, wheelchair tennis pioneer Chantal Vandierendonck, former USTA President Jane Brown Grimes, legendary coach Nick Bollettieri and the “voice of Wimbledon”, John Barrett.
Chantal Vandierendonck and John Barrett were in attendance in London and were honored in a special ceremony.
One of the early stars of wheelchair tennis, Chantal Vandierendonck was the Esther Vergeer of the 90’s: she was the first Wheelchair Tennis World Champion in 1991, she won seven US Open and five Paralympic medals. She is the first Dutch tennis player to be inducted to the Hall of Fame.
A former British Davis Cup captain, John Barrett was the “Voice of Wimbledon” on the BBC from 1971-06. His wife, former top-ranked player Angela Mortimer Barrett, was inducted into the Hall in 1993. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are the only other married couple in the ITHF.

Shown below: ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti, Hall of Fame Chairman Christopher Clouser, Vice Chairman of the Nomination commitee Ingrid Lofdahl Bentzer, Chantal Vandierendonck and John Barrett.

Chantal Vandierendonck with John Barrett

They were then joined on court by Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi who received Hall of Fame rings.

Said Christopher Clouser:

“These one-of-a-kind rings are a symbol of all that they have accomplished and their legacy in the sport.”

Ivan Lendl

Pete Sampras

Andre Agassi

Gordon Reid vs Marc McCarroll

Next, British wheelchair tennis players Gordon Reid and Marc McCarroll took to the court to play a championship tie-break. World number 3 Reid won easily 8-3 over world number 12 McCarroll.

Wheelchair tennis follows the same rules as able-bodied tennis. Except the ball is allowed to bounce twice. The second bounce can be either inside or outside the court boundaries.

If you get the opportunity, don’t hesitate to go watch some wheelchair tennis, it is highly entertaining. You can read here and here about my day at the London Paralympics in 2012.

Gordon Reid

Gordon Reid

Gordon Reid and Marc McCarroll

Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras

And finally, the match everyone was waiting for: Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras.
With contrasting styles and temperaments, they played each other 34 times from 1989 through 2002, with Sampras winning 20 of their matches. They played some memorable matches like the 2001 US Open quaterfinal, 2002 US Open final. Their rivalry was the Nadal-Federer of the 90’s.

Of the four Grand Slam champions that played that evening, Pete Sampras was the only player I had never watch playing live before, and I enjoyed watching his smooth serves and volleys.
Sampras struggled a bit at the beginning but from what he said after the match, he doesn’t play much tennis these days. I guess it’s easier to find back your rythm when you play from the baseline than when you play serve and volley.
Agassi took the match 6-3 7-6 on a Sampras double fault.

There was not much interaction with the crowd and despite what they said it’s obvious these guys will never be friends, they just tollerate each other.

Pete Sampras, Elaine Paige and Andre Agassi:

Pete Sampras, Elaine Paige, Andre Agassi

Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi

Sampras and Agassi lap of honor:

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi

Despite the (really) high price of the ticket I really enjoyed this evening of tennis featuring four tennis legends. A suggestion for next year: what about Rafter-Ivanisevic and Becker-Edberg matches?

More pics and videos of the matches Cash-Lendl and Agassi-Sampras: