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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If the collective emotions of the Australian people could be harnassed, Patrick Rafter would have won a sackful of Australian championships. He was one of our most popular players because of his gallantry, his dashing style of play, and lack of affectation. His good looks won him a few points too.

Pat Rafter

Ever since Mark Edmondson won the 1976 Open, Australians had been awaiting another home-grown champion to place his name on the men’s honour roll. One of the vanishing breed of serve and volley players, Rafter slowly imposed himself on the Australian consciousness in the 90s. But he rarely played as well at home as on foreign shores. He twice won the US Open and twice made the Wimbledon final.

His best effort at Melbourne Park was a fourth round finish in 1995 – the best, that is, until 2001, when he faced Andre Agassi in a semifinal, with a chance to play either Arnaud Clement or Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the final.

Pat Rafter

On a warm, steamy evening, Rafter led Agassi by two sets to one. As the match wore on, however, the heat and tension took toll of the Aussie’s muscles, causing him to sweat heavily, cramp, and struggle with fatigue. Agassi, keeping down unforced errors, won 7-5 2-6 6-7 6-2 6-3.

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter

Source: 2010 official program