Winner at Roland Garros in 1974 and 1975, Borg reached the Wimbledon final in 1976 without dropping a set. He then dispatched Ilie Nastase in straight sets. Borg became the youngest male Wimbledon champion of the modern era at 20 years and 1 month (a record subsequently broken by Boris Becker, who won Wimbledon aged 17 in 1985). It would be the last time Borg played Wimbledon as an underdog.
With his long blonde hair and good looks, Bjorn Borg changed the face of tennis in the early 70s: winning Roland Garros made him a european celebrity, but winning Wimbledon made him a worldwilde celebrity, the first tennis popstar.
Extract from Mr Nastase, the autobiography:
We emerged from the locker rroom that was on the left, just inside the main entrance to the All England Club, turned let, walked up a few steps, through some wooden doors, and passed underneath Kipling’s words about meeting Triumph and Disaster and treating those two impostors just the same (yeah, right). Then, just on the left, before the door that led onto Centre Court, we were told to wait in the famous little anteroom. We sat there, just Bjorn and me and Leo, the little lockerroom attendant who carried all our rackets and bags. Bjorn and I had agreed before we went out which end we would take with our chais, but that was all we had said to each other all morning. In the anteroom, we didn’t exchange a word.
Then we were called onto court. We emerged to a total scrum of photographers. Even I had never seen so many, it felt like a boxing match. We both bowed when we reached the sevice line, and each went to our corners. Borg won the toos and elected to receive. When play started, I began well. So well, in fact, compared to Borg, that I broke him in his first service game, led 3-0, and had three break points for a 4-0 lead.
Sure enough, the Ice Man cometh. Borg woke up. He held serve, broke back, got to 3-3, and broke me again to go 5-4, after which he served out to win the first set. I think that, if I had won that first set, anything could have happened. But, with Borg one set up, he got into his stride, whereas I seemed to lose my momentum. I had served really well all through the tournament, making use of my slightly heavier racket. Now, though, my serves were neutered, and he was benefiting from the slower court and higher bounce to slug great returns at me as I made my way to the net. He also served unbelievably well, and because of the conditions, had more time to choose on which shot he would come up to the net, so he won a lot of points at the net, something he would not normally have done. Although I was fast, Borg was a great athlete as well, so he was able to run to anything.
By the second set, I had lost confidence. I began to swear and shout at my brother and Mitch out of frustration. I tried staying back, I tried going up to the net, but Bjorn had an answer to everything. Before I knew I had lost the set 6-2.
I kept trying to get myself going in the third set. I was slapping my thigh the whole time, but still Borg was better than me. I’m not the sort of player who, at the change of ends, will sit there trying to analyze the game and figure out a way of changing things. I would just change ends faster. When I was winning, on the other hand, I used to take a long time: let the other guy sit there and think about it. But now that I was losing there was no point in sitting there, going crazy. Borg, meawhile, was spending every change of ends putting freezing spray on his stomach muscle to numb the pain. It obviously worked.
It was incredible how, having totally crushed him six months before in the Masters final, the situation had been reversed, and I was now the one who couldn’t play. But that’s the unpredictable side of sport. Maybe if we’d played the next day, the result would have been different, you never know. But I have to say Borg played really well that day.
He broke immediately in that third set and reached 5-4. He was now serving for the title. The crowd went wild and tried to encourage me. I don’t know how, but I managed to break back after saving a match point with a passing shot. I survived until 7-7 (the tie-breaks were at 8-all in those days) when I was broken again. This time, Borg reached match point, served match point, served to my backhand corner, and I returned into the net. It was all over. Borg hurled his racket into the air, as Smith has done four years before. Although I had lost, I spontaneously leapt over the net to hug and congratulate him.
“I remember being in a hurry to beat my first round opponent, the Venezuelan Velasco (6-0 6-2 6-0), because I had to rush off to meet Dominique at the airport that afternoon as she had flown in from Brussels.
My second round match against Roger Taylor was much tougher, and it all came down to 5th set tie-break. This was the third year that tie-breaks had been used, and at Forest Hills they played a sudden death, a nine-point version where the first player to get to five points won. This, together with the terrible grass courts where bad bounces were the nom, meant that the whole thing became a whole lottery. I won that tie-break 5-1, but it had been a narrow escape, especially since I had initially led the match by two sets to love, only to let Taylor draw back level to two sets all.
After that major scare, my path through to the final of the US Open was a lot easier. In successive rounds, I beat a lefthander from France, Patrice Dominguez, the South African doubles specialist Bob Hewitt, then Fred Stolle, who had earlier got rid of Newcombe in my half of the draw, and finally, Tom Gorman, against who I had a very good record.
In the final, I was due to meet Arthur Ashe, who had won the title back in 68 and who, as a player, possessed both power and finesse.
The all-white rule had been abandoned at Forest Hills that year, so I picked out a pale blue Fred Perry shirt and white shorts. I loved being able to do that. No more daily shirt washing. For the rest of my career, I would always play my singles matches in a new outfit and would use the older clothes for the doubles or the practice. Later on, when I signed with adidas, in 1975, I used to have enormous boxes of clothes in my house in France, one box for shirts, one for shorts, one for shoes, and so on. I think I was the first player to do that. […]
The grass courts favored my game, and their softness made my drop shots bounce very low, like in water, as Ashe said afterwards. I didn’t think that I was going to win, but I knew I could. I was thinking that getting to the final was not enough, but I knew that match was going to be difficult, because this was on grass and I was playing Ashe who was good on grass. If I had been playing him on clay, it would have been peanuts for me. I was quick and I remember getting some unbelievable balls back.
I recall one point in particular: at Forest Hills the Centre Court was actually three courts side by side. The one you played the final on was the middle one. This meant you could un wide on both sides. On this particular point, Arthur came to the net and played a cross-court volley onto my backhand but so far away that I had to run onto the next court to get it. I ran into the doubles lines on that court, hit the ball ound the net, and put it in the corner. I did that because I knew intuitively he was going to hit it there, so I started running in advance, ten metes onto the other court. That point stuck in my memory because it was so fantastic, and it gave me and the crowd such pleasure. […]
Ashe broke me at the start of the 5th set but, instead of crumbling, I immediately broke him back. I felt strong, mentally and physically, and carried on playing in the same risky way I always do, but at that stage everything was working. I broke him again to lead 4-2, then, keeping my nerve, finally took the set 6-3 and the US Open title with it. At the end I remember jumping around like a madman for something like five minutes, because I was so unbelievably happy to have won. I never thought I could win such a big tournament on grass because I still didn’t feel comfortable on the stuff, so to win against somebody as good as Arthur, and in such a tight match, that felt great. It also felt like justice was done, after Wimbledon. That’s what it was: vindication.”