Björn Borg: The Kneeling Man
Björn Borg was a man of clay who won five titles in a row on grass. Even Sampras couldn’t match that particular feat at Wimbledon and Federer could only equal it. Cool? Yes
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The tranquil Viking was a modest plunderer, who came armed with a black Donnay and a headband instead of a helmet. He was the ice cube that never melted, under 6ft, long-haired, loved. Especially by young women, one of whom followed him across Centre Court. In high heels! He was lucky that he played in a time of nuance for if he was around now we would label him dull and move on. Then, in the 1970s, a black and white figure on our TV sets, he was a mysterious figure in a striped T-shirt. Fortitude in Fila.
Björn Borg was a hunched creature from Norse mythology. He wasn’t conspicuous like Jimmy Connors, or obvious like John McEnroe, those crotch grabbers and finger pointers who lived on the outskirts of subtlety. Instead the Swede—Björn means bear—was inscrutable, unknowable, immovable.
Must be a Scandinavian thing.
Torben Ulrich, a Dane, got to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1959, played the clarinet in a jazz band and fathered the Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Once, wrote Gordon Forbes in A Handful Of Summers, possibly the most enjoyable book I have read on sport, Torben gets on a stage, puts the clarinet to his lips, does nothing for several minutes and then sits down and says: “Do you know, Gordon, I could not think of a single note to play?”
Borg, once a racket thrower, was followed by his own myths, stories, whispers, rumours, superstitions. All the stuff that makes up legends. His pulse rate was 35. No, 45. Wait, did he have a heart? He didn’t shave because he, the pragmatic man, believed in omens? His Donnay rackets were strung so tight that the frames cracked and folded at night, or so it was said. But did his coach Lennart Bergelin really sleep with them? Did he sweat? Was his air conditioning always set at 12 degrees? Why were the knuckles on his left hand taped?
He was the Ice Man, Consistent Man and Kneeling Man. When he won in 1980 in a final against John McEnroe that was a classic, a masterpiece, worth two books and now soon a movie, he fell to his knees in what the legendary commentator Dan Maskell called an “instinctive prayer”. A man overcome by his own genius.
And of all the images from Wimbledon, of all the leaps and falls and yells and weeps and racket hurls of victory, is there anything more devout and famous than this?
There is, we tend to forget, a terrific disservice that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal do to tennis with their brilliance. They almost make the past irrelevant. They trample all over history. They wreck records. They brush aside ghosts. To the point where you type in “Borg” and the first thing that Google, those traitorous bastards, tell you is that it’s an alien group from Star Trek.
But for an older generation at least, Borg occupies a small ridge in the memory and he won’t be shifted. Eleven Slam wins even though he played the Australian just once. Three times, consecutively, conqueror of Paris and London in the same year (1978-80) in a time when the grass bounced lower. This was outrageous versatility, especially when you consider that in over a century of tennis a few men have won the French and Wimbledon in the same year but not one has done it even twice in a row.
There’s no such thing as a favourite story from Wimbledon, but Borg—whom I never even saw “live”—could be mine. Only because we’re still asking:
How exactly did he win it?
On the fast grass, the slow-court man. Big backswing player confronted with low bounce. Clay-slider doing the grass quick-step. Baseliner in an era when serve-volleyers swooped and buzzed the net like low-flying Spitfires. Tired after the French, which he won six times, and greeted with wet English grass. He was the worst fit for Wimbledon, and so, what the hell, he won it five straight times. Even Pete Sampras, with the tongue out and a serve like a Tyson right hook cutting through the night, who had seven titles, couldn’t do five in a row. Even Laver, even John McEnroe, even Fred Perry, even all the men with superior tools, couldn’t equal that feat. Even Federer couldn’t outdo it.
The exceptional athlete dares. He changes minds. He overturns theories. He mocks the armchair critic. He finds a route. Wimbledon could be won only from the forecourt. This was fact. Borg turned it into fiction. Last fortnight, from Melbourne, Paul McNamee, a Borg contemporary, fourth round in singles at Wimbledon in 1982, twice a doubles champion there, said: “Bjorn was a game changer. He proved you can win Wimbledon from the back of the court. He changed the whole approach.”
In his impressive book Epic, Matthew Cronin quotes Arthur Ashe, who said: “Most of us thought it was kind of a fluke the first time (Borg) won Wimbledon in 1976. Hell, nobody in 30 years had been able to win on grass from the baseline hitting topspin the way he does.”
But Borg, writes Cronin, practised his serve—an underrated weapon—an hour a day for two weeks before Wimbledon. His clunky volleys were helped by skiddy grass, he had the fast hands of a card magician and he hit passing shots like a sprinting sniper. He locked his emotions in a Swedish safe-box, so securely that—as McEnroe recounted in his book Serious—in late 1980 when he uttered the word “shit” during an exhibition match, the crowd was so stunned that it gave him a standing ovation. But his outward cool obscured a tension within and a rage to win and at Wimbledon he triumphed in all seven five-setters he played between 1976-80, three of them in finals.
But most of all, says McNamee, Borg was “the best athlete going around. The fastest and fittest and strongest. Like an Olympic 400m runner.”
And he had a “secret weapon”.
To be precise, “Diadora shoes with pimples” on the sole which gave him greater grip. When McNamee discovered this, he—and he says other players too—would take off the labels from the shoes they were contracted to wear and paste them on Diadora shoes and wear those. But no shoes could make anyone move like Borg.
Borg is not on Twitter, he’s not a supercoach, he doesn’t commentate on major TV channels. Jimmy Connors finally wrote a book, The Outsider, in 2013 but the only English-language book I have by Borg (with Gene Scott) is called My Life And Game and was published in 1980. If there are hard-partying stories about him, they’re still to be properly told. Most tellingly, I can’t really remember a single memorable quote of his and McNamee—who says Borg is gregarious now—remembers practising with him for 2 hours in Monte Carlo, with the conversation rarely moving past the weather.
Borg was sport before the posturing, a champion of no artifice, no grandstanding, no excessive celebration, no branding. And yet, as his exit proved, an athlete of unbeatable style. He left without a farewell speech or a goodbye tour, almost unthinkable in this age of manufactured occasions. In 1981, he won the French Open, got to the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, and then never played a Grand Slam event again.
He was 25 years old.