From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:
On the day of the finals, transparent clouds travel through a sky of china blue. The air is crisp and cool, as if the seasons have changed and left a single autumnal day in honor of the past champions.
At the entrance to the Tribune présidentielle, the box reserved for honored guests and dignitaries, Juliet Mills sits at a table examining a complex seating chart, wondering where to put Belmondo, and Princess Caroline and Philippe Junot. Mills, a former film star, is now in charge of the celebrated at Roland Garros. Each day she attends to their needs and works out a seating arrangement as assiduously as a debutante giving her first dinner party.
On the floor of the stadium, a Signal Corps bad in khaki uniform plays brassy music as the galleries slowly fill. Runners of crimson velvet crisscross the court beneath the feet of ball boys who stand at parade rest holding a panoply of flags. A single strip of carpet provides a path from the court to the end of the stadium, up the stairs of the presidential box, and into a portal lined with royal guards in uniforms of black and red with burnished helmets.
The stadium is full now; the band is silent. Some 18,000 spectators await the start of the ceremony.
Suddenly the guardsmen raise their trumpets and sound a brisk fanfare. All eyes are fixed on the portal as the announcer intones the name of Henri Cochet, the seventy-six-year-old Frenchman who was the first champion of Roland Garros, and triggers an avalanche of applause.
Next comes René Lacoste, le crocodile, who turned his inelegant nickname into a trademark known throughout the world. Then Jean Borotra, the bouncing Basque, who smiles and waves casually, hardly pausing as he takes the stairs with the sprightly step that earned him his nickname. As he joins his fellow musketeers before the French standard, the parade of champions continues chronologically, from Peggy Vivian to a beaming Don Budge. There is Hoad, the blond bull wearing a mile-wide smile, looking as robust and invincible as ever; Darlene Hard Wagoner in a blue polyester pantsuit with a loud geometrically patterned top; Manuel Santana, the virtuoso, dapper and compact in a blazer of navy velvet.
The speaker reaches 1973 and the name Bjorn Borg. There is a moment of anticipation and then Borg appears, his hair clean and long and golden in the sun, his body lean and angular in the track suit that fits him like a second skin.
And then 1977 is called. Vilas steps out to a warm welcome. Vilas takes the stairs with his head bowed and proceeds to where Borg and Panatta stand chatting. He realizes his error and looks for the Argentinian flag. When he arrives before it, he exchanges a few words with his neighbour, Santana.
Borg held a long first game to start the match, then broke Vilas when the defending champion made three puzzling errors and double-faulted the love-40 point. Vilas broke back, but Borg won the next four games running to take the first set, 6-1, in a mere thirty-seven minutes.
Vilas is strong and Vilas is steady. Borg is his equal in that, but Borg is also frightening quick, and his consistency is neither defensive nor aimed at prolonging a point; it is merely an aggressive tactic to prepare him for the killing stroke. Errors from Vilas’ backhand begin to come with disturbing frequency. Each time he misses, he throws the racquet from his left hand to his right just as he concludes his follow-through, then snaps his left palm upward in a gesture of despair. It is meant only for the eyes of Tiriac, who sits courtside, just behind Vilas’ chair, sending a multitude of subtle hand signals to his protégé.
Absorbed in the match, Tiriac resembles some prehistoric turtle, with his broad, curved back and the sad, impassive eyes set deep in his head. The eternal cigarette cupped in his right hand is raised every other moment to the mustache that frames his mouth like an inverted horseshoe. When Vilas looks over, Tiriac will nod or just blink, but the blink seems loaded with profound implications.
Tiriac is no help today, for Borg is really on form, and Vilas has not mastered the attacking game well enough to force his opponent out of his rythm. After Borg wins the second set, also by 6-1, Tiriac advises Vilas to attack in the third. In desperation, Vilas begins to hit his flat first serve. He takes the initiative. He attacks, but he is tentative and flounders like a man caught in a bad dream. The dividends are higher now, and after surrendering an early break that gives Borg breathing room, Vilas manages to hold on and take three games. But he cannot stop Borg when the Swede serves for the match at 5-3. When Vilas hits a volley out to give Borg the match, the winner drops his racquet and slowly, almost as if he is yawning, raises his arms high above his head. He turns toward the players’ box, and for the first time in the match, he looks at his coach, Bergelin, and his fiancée, Marianna.
When Vilas sat down to the reporters, the light in his eyes expessed relief. “He gave me no chances to win. He made no mistakes. I think he played much better than me today,” he admitted.
Vilas was aked if so routine a loss to Borg was discouraging, and whether he felt that more work would ultimately give him a better chance against his Swedish rival. “I think I have to improve my play on all surfaces, learn to do more things,” he replied. “He is quicker, but I am stronger. Today, we were not out there so long that I could take advantage of my strength.” He continued, in a voice that was softer and less mechanical, “There are many disadvantages with my kind of thinking, but I have also one big advantage – I am not happy.”
“Why not?” a woman reporter asked kindly.
“It is impossible. When you are happy … you are dead.”
When Borg appeared, his hair hanging in thick, wet strands about his ears and shoulders, he was smiling.
“Well, how will you celebrate your third French title?”
“There will be a big kiss tonight,” Borg quipped.
He was surprised the match went so easily and felt that he won all the important points – the deuce and 30-40 points that support a win. After the first two games, he knew that Vilas did not have the confidence to beat him: “I see it in his shots, you know, and also in his face. He looks to me a little bit afraid. He become very nervous when he makes a mistake, like he cannot believe it, you know? Like somebody is doing something very bad to him.”
Someone suggested that Vilas might have a complex about him, but Borg would not confirm the theory. However, he allowed that his easy wins over Vilas in their last few matches had put him at a distinct advantage.
A late arrival asked Borg if he was doing anything special that evening.
“Yes in one hour I go on plane for Belgrade to play Davis Cup,” said the champion.
“You will have a champagne party, maybe?”
“Yeah.” Borg laughed. “Maybe on the plane.”
On the way out, I asked Borg what he would like to do on the private jet waiting at nearby Charles de Gaulle airport to take him to Belgrade.
“Sleep,” he replied.
By Roger M. Williams, Australian Tennis Magazine, March 1986
During the fifth set of a semifinal match at the Australian Open last December, 19-year-old Stefan Edberg of Sweden faced what pop psychologists call a crisis of confidence. Holding three match points against Ivan Lendl, the world’s No. 1, Edberg proceeded to lose all three. No, he actually lost the first two and blew the third – a backhand sitter with Lendl off balance at midcourt.
The Edberg of old – that is, 18 or early 19 – would probably have crumpled right then. “Depression,” as he candidly calls it, would have taken command and, glowering and muttering, his head drooping like a dejected schoolboy, he would have gone on to squander the greatest opportunity of his career. As his coach, Tony Pickard, later reflected, “Those missed match points would’ve gotten to him something awful.”
But the new young Edberg is not the old young Edberg. Pulling himself together promptly and calmly, he proceeded to defeat Lendl 9-7 in the fifth. Then in the final two days later, he completed the greatest week of his life by steamrolling fellow Swede Mats Wilander 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Two weeks after that, in the deciding match of the 1985 Davis Cup final, Edberg recorded another extraordinary victory, overcoming West Germany’s cannonballing Michael Westphal, 13,000 roaring hometown fans in Munich and his own acute nervousness to retain the Cup for Sweden. All of these heroics, it turned out, were performed in the face of developing mononucleosis, which Edberg’s lean, lithe body had been harboring for several weeks. A touch of mono, it seems, would he good for all of us.
As the holder of a Grand Slam singles title and the hero of Sweden’s championship Davis Cup team, Edberg now stands with Boris Becker as the hottest young player in the game. Indeed, the reserved young Swede is now emerging from the shadow of such countrymen as Wilander, Anders Jarryd, Joakim Nystrom and Henrik Sundstrom, and threatening to overtake them all as the best of the Swedes.
His victory over Wilander, the two-time defending champion at the Australian Open, is one indication of that. So is his fiery ambition. Much has been made of Wilander’s wavering interest in gaining the summit of men’s tennis. But Edberg, now 20, expresses no such diffidence. Far from it; he hungers openly for the top and will not be satisfied until he gets there. As Erik Bergelin, Edberg’s agent, notes, “Stefan even turns down exhibitions so he can concentrate on winning tournaments and climbing in the rankings.”
Now ranked No. 5, Edberg is also more demonstrative than most of his fellow Swedes. He’s never boorish on the court, but it’s easy to tell that fire burns beneath the placid exterior. He customarily reacts to errors by grimacing and spitting out an expletive that’s sure to be a Swedish version of an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word. Asked what the word is, he grins and replies, “It’s not very nice – but it’s not very loud.”
This Swede who would be king was born and raised in Vastervik, a coastal resort town about 175 miles south of Stockholm. His father was, and still is, a plainclothes policeman. Young Stefan excelled at tennis and early on developed a serve-and- volley style that immediately set him apart from all the baseline topspinners imitating Bjorn Borg.
“I always practiced a lot on my serve,” he recalls, “the second as well as the first. And I always liked to volley.”
Nobody insisted that he couldn’t win that way on clay because, from an early age, Edberg won on that surface.
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.
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.
By Barry Newcombe, Tennis World, July 1982
The first Sunday in June had become a routine operation for Lennart Bergelin, coach to Bjorn Borg. No-one would rise too early, they would practise for about an hour, and then Bjorn would go off and win the French title at Stade Roland Garros. That happened six times.
Everyone knew it could not happen this year. When the French championships began, Borg was handling the controls of a boat he had rented to sail among the Greek islands rather than a tennis racket, and somehow the 128 contenders left in the hunt for the French title knew that things would not be the same.
There was never really that much speculation about the winner. Ninety percent of the press room would probably have opted for Ivan Lendl to move from the runner-up role he occupied in 1981 into the role of champion. The feeling in the locker room may have been more or less the same.
There were considered to be two other strong contenders – Guillermo Vilas, on the basis that he was a past champion and was playing supremely well, and the top-seeded Jimmy Connors who could perhaps count this year as his last reasonable opportunity of a first win in the French.
But nobody mentioned Mats Wilander of Sweden. He had, after all, been a semi-finalist in Rome on the eve of the French championships and although those of us who had been there knew that his eye was sharp and his game in good order it was stretching credibility to expect him to make the last four in Paris. After all, he was not even seeded.
Yet at the end of two of the hottest weeks I can ever recall at Roland Garros, there was Wilander, 77 days short of his 18th birthday, climbing the stairs at the stadium to receive the trophy from Jean Borotra, now 82 years old, who had done it all 50 years previously.
At his home in Sweden, Bergelin had watched Wilander win the final over Vilas 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 on television and could not believe it. “It is fantastic”, he would say. “Bjorn does not play and now we have another Swedish player as champion. It is so good for the game in our country. I would say to Mats “Remember the first title is the best.” Bjorn always said that.”
When any analysis of Wilander’s career is made, it is clear that one of the critical days came in the fourth round of the French championship when he faced Lendl. By the time this match had reached two sets all, Wilander knew he had already set up one new mark in his career. He had never played a five-set match in his life and his reaction to that task was to open up a 5-2 lead against leaden-legged Lendl whose forehand let him down in these crucial stages. “I did my best”, said Lendl. “I was practising hard, trying hard, and I was outplayed.”
After Lendl, Wilander played Vitas Gerulaitis, the most consistent of the American players on European clay, but not good enough to hold off the teenager with a target. Gerulaitis went in four sets and Wilander moved on to a semi-final against José-Luis Clerc, the fourth seed, who had struggled in Florence and Rome and appeared to be playing with more assurance.
But Wilander was beginning to create a sense of insecurity among the seeds. He broke Clerc’s serve in the very first game as he hoisted his victory flag and he was never in serious danger of losing this four-set semi-final until the second match point at 6-5 in the first set (he had missed an easier one, in terms of pressure, at 5-1). On the second, a forehand from Clerc was called out and the umpire called the match and left his chair. But Wilander went to the umpire and told him: “The ball was good, that’s not the way I want to win.” Both players agreed that the ball was correct so the umpire, Jacques Dorfmann, who is also the championship referee, caught the mood of the moment and ordered the point replayed. This time Clerc found the net with a backhand and it was firmly settled.
Vilas, meantime, was cruising. Round by round he was being fined $250 for an illegal headband but he was punishing all comers in a supreme display of his strength and ability. He reached the final without losing a set and having conceded 39 games. Surely this iron man who trained so hard would end the one-man assault on the top ten which Wilander had produced.
Another burning hot day was the setting for the final. After an hour, Vilas had won the first set 6-1 and I believe it was the time rather than the score which was significant at that stage. The rallies were long and arduous with 60-stroke exchanges commonplace.
By the time the two players had reached the tie break at the end of the second set, a further 90 minutes had elapsed and Wilander, having saved a set point with a top spin lob, took the tie-break by eight points to six. It was, of course, the first set Vilas had lost in the championships and he never won another.
Wilander, whose full fitness had been hampered by a heavy cold, did not lose a game in the third set which saw him accelerating mentally away from the left-handed Argentine. In the fourth, with cramp nagging at his racket hand, he broke through for 5-4 and served out in champion style for victory in four hours and 43 minutes. Ice-cool, like Borg, he had become the youngest winner in any of the Grand Slam titles.