Swedish tennis player
One of the best all-time performers in tennis history, Swedish player Bjorn Borg won 62 singles titles, including 11 Grand Slam titles, and was ranked number one in the world in 1979 and 1980. With his powerful two-handed backhand, menacing topspin, and balletic footwork, he challenged the chief rivals of his day, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors . And with his flowing blond locks and soft-spoken mystique, he won over audiences around the world—and stole the hearts of many a teenage admirer. Yet the tennis legend's career was as brief as it was bright, as he announced his retirement to a shocked tennis world in 1983, at age 26.
Gift of a Tennis Racquet
Bjorn Rune Borg was born on Sweden's Flag Day, June 6, 1956, in Sodertalje, a manufacturing town about 35 minutes from Stockholm. He was the only child of Rune and Margerethe Borg, who owned a grocery store. One of Sweden's leading table-tennis players, Rune Borg captured first prize in his city's championships in the summer of 1965, and was awarded a tennis racquet. He gave that racquet to his nine-year-old son, launching in the boy a lifelong passion.
Yet tennis was not the young athlete's first love. Like many other Swedish boys, Borg was a passionate ice-hockey player. At nine years old, he played starting center for his town's junior team. Making the national team was a dream he shared with many of his teammates and peers.
Borg picked up his first tennis racquet in the summertime, when there was no ice for hockey playing. He approached the new sport with zeal—though at first he was turned away from the overcrowded beginners' course at the Sodertalje Tennis Club. Undeterred, he endeavored to teach himself how to play, using his garage wall as a backboard. Soon a vacancy opened at the tennis club, and the young player spent the rest of his summer there, honing his new skills from 7 a.m. until dusk.
Trained with Sweden's Best
The following summer, his playing caught the eye of Sweden's leading tennis coach of the day, Percy Rosberg. Rosberg was in Sodertalje to observe the skills of two 13-year-olds, Peter Abrink and Leif Johansson. Borg took the opportunity to hit for half an hour with Rosberg, who noted the young player's ability to return the ball consistently—and who invited the boy to train with him at the Salk Club in Stockholm.
For the next five years, young Borg stuck with a rigorous after-school schedule of commuting to Stockholm and training at the Salk Club. His parents supported their son's pursuit, even though his devotion to tennis was taking a toll on his schoolwork. Instead of studying for his classes, he was improving his shots.
In his first two years of playing, Borg held the racquet with both hands—even when he hit forehand shots—simply because the racquet was too heavy. As he continued playing, he grew stronger, and he also discovered that it was easier to hit the ball with topspin if he adopted a one-handed forehand. Yet he would keep the two-handed backhand for his entire tennis career, and this grip would become his signature style.
Borg won his first tournament at age 11, beating Lars Goran Nyman in the Sormland County championships. Over the next four years, he swept every junior championship in his age division. At 14, Borg was selected to represent Sweden in his first international tournament, a junior championship in Berlin, Germany. The same year, he gave up ice hockey and committed himself completely to tennis.
In March 1972, when Borg was 15, he took a leave from school to compete in the Madrid Grand Prix. The tournament was a turning point for Borg, who upset Jan Erik Lundquist, a Swedish tennis legend nearing the end of his career. The win qualified Borg for the Davis Cup team, which faced New Zealand in May. On the courts in the seaside resort town of Bastaad, Borg became the youngest player ever to win a Davis Cup match, triumphing over New Zealand's top player, Onny Parun. Although he was down in the first two sets, Borg took his captain's advice to switch to a lighter racquet mid-match. The result was a triumphant upset, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
It was at the Davis Cup games that Borg gained his reputation for remaining cool under pressure—so cool and reserved that he would earn the nickname "Ice Man." While most players argued with referees when they received bad calls, Borg let the calls pass and concentrated instead on the next point. The Swedish press declared that he had is i magen, "ice in the stomach." As Borg's career progressed, the press alternately chided him for what seemed like his stony lack of emotion, and praised him for his good sportsmanship. Yet this stoic athlete commanded respect, and he would receive it in excess from both the press and his fans.
|Born June 6 in Sodertalje, Sweden, to Rune and Margarethe Borg
|Father wins tennis racquet in table-tennis tournament, and gives racquet to Borg
|Takes first tennis lessons
|Meets Percy Rosberg, top coach in Sweden; trains with Rosberg in Stockholm
|Wins first junior tournament
|Represents Sweden in junior tournament, Berlin
|Scores first major win, against national tennis star Jan Erik Lundquist
|Qualifies for Davis Cup team; meets coach Lennart Bergelin
|Debuts at Wimbledon
|Turns pro; becomes youngest player to win French Open
|Sets Davis Cup record winning streak of 19 singles matches, lifting Sweden to first Cup win against Czechoslovakia
|Wins second of six consecutive French Open titles
|Wins first of five consecutive Wimbledon titles
|Becomes number one player in world, August 23; holds ranking for two weeks
|Begins and ends year with number one ranking
|Marries Romanian tennis player Mariana Simionescu
|Loses Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles to John McEnroe
|Retires at age 26
|Creates sports-apparel company, Bjorn Borg Design Groups
|Marries Italian rock singer Loredana Berte
|Begins training for tennis comeback
|Attempts comeback unsuccessfully
|Separates from Berte
|Joins over-35 circuit
|Retires from senior circuit; begins training young Swedish players
|Marries real-estate broker Patricia Ostfeldt
The Rise to the Top
Borg debuted at Wimbledon in the summer of 1973—the year of an infamous player boycott carried out by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Since he was not an ATP member, Borg was free to participate in the games, and he made a good showing. He won his first match against Indian player Prem Lall, then defeated German player Karl Meiler and Hungarian player Szabolcs Baranyi, advancing to the quarterfinals. The press took notice, with the Daily Mirror running the eye-catching headline A STAR IS BJORN. Borg exited after the quarters, however, losing to Roger Taylor in five sets.
If he wasn't winning championships yet, Borg was gaining experience and logging victories against highly ranked players in the championship circle. In the third round of the 1973 U.S. Open, he upset Arthur Ashe at the peak of the American tennis great's career. (Two years later, Ashe would get his comeuppance with a win over Borg at Wimbledon.)
A turning point for Borg came in 1974, the year he turned pro at age 17. For the first time in his career, Borg was a presence at every major tournament. In May he became the youngest player ever to win the Italian Championships, and a week later he became the youngest player ever to win the French Open. He ended the year with a full purse of prize money, earning $215,569 on the court. Even more compensation came to him from off-court activities—especially from product endorsements. The demand for Borg products became so intense that the player hired an agent, American manager Mark McCormack, of International Management Group (IMG). In order to avoid the 90 percent tax bite that Sweden took from his earnings, 18-year-old Borg relocated with his parents to Monaco—a move that angered his compatriots and led to accusations from the Swedish press that he was unpatriotic and greedy.
It was also in 1974 that Borg met the Romanian tennis player Mariana Simionescu, who would become his wife. At the time, Borg was involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with the Swedish player Helena Anliot. It was not until 1975 that Borg and Simionescu started dating. They soon became inseparable, and married on July 24, 1980.
A banner year came for the Swedish player in 1975, when he set a Davis Cup record winning streak of 19 singles matches, escorting Sweden to its first Cup win against Czechoslovakia. It was during these games that Borg met Lennart Bergelin, who would later become his trainer and one of his closest confidantes. The following year, Borg developed a powerful new serve. "I shifted the position to my left foot, so my toss wouldn't shoot all over the place," he recalled in his 1980 memoir Bjorn Borg: My Life and Game. "Now I had to hit the ball out in front. I gained rhythm, consistency and power."
Indeed, the new serve was perhaps what it took to raise Borg to number two in the world that year, and to win him the Wimbledon title for the first of five consecutive times. After winning his second Wimbledon title in August 1977, a hard-won five-set victory over American tennis star Jimmy Connors, 18-year-old Borg became the number one player in the world. Yet he would hold the ranking for only two weeks, slipping after a loss at the U.S. Open—the one championship tournament that Borg would never win, and that would become a kind of jinx for the Swedish tennis star.
A Legendary Rivalry
Happily for tennis fans, who enjoy the great playing that comes hand in hand with strong competition, Borg was not the only player at the peak of his game in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Right up there with him at the top of the rankings were two other tennis giants: Americans Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. The three powerhouses together created one of tennis history's greatest rivalries. But the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe—magnified by the players' contrasting temperaments—was perhaps the most memorable of all.
Steely nerved and seemingly emotionless on court, the Swedish tennis star had garnered the nickname "Ice Borg." Meanwhile, openly emotional McEnroe became infamous for his courtside tantrums, which led the press to dub him "McBrat." Tennis writers also pointed out the various pros and cons of beging a right-handed player (Borg) or a lefty (McEnroe), comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the great rivals. But mostly, both fans and critics loved to watch these well-matched athletes play against each other. "McEnroe was more aggressive than any other player I have ever played, the greatest fighter on a tennis court," Borg reminisced to interviewer Faisal Shariff, of Rediff Sports, in 2001. "He never gave you a free point, you had to earn every point, squeeze it out of him."
Nineteen seventy-nine was Borg's year. For the first time, he both began and ended the year with a number one ranking. He swept a string of tournaments, and became the first player ever to win the French Open and Wimbledon two years in a row. Yet rising-star McEnroe took the U.S. Open, with Borg losing in a quarterfinal night game to powerful server, Roscoe Tanner.
The following year, Borg faced McEnroe at Wimbledon, where he successfully defended his title in a classic, tooth-and-nail final match, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6. It was Borg's fifth straight Wimbledon win. Just a few weeks later, the rivals faced each other again at the finals of the 1980 U.S. Open, and this time McEnroe had his day in the sun. The Swedish player, still number one in the world, blamed the loss on a weak serve. "I think I lost the match because I never served so bad in a final," he told the New York Times. "Once in a while something is not working out well in your game. You just have one of those days."
Yet Borg would not always take such a loss in stride. In 1981, he lost to McEnroe in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It was the crushing U.S. Open defeat, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, that some say effectively ended the Swede's career.
Retired at Age 26
Before his 1981 U.S. Open upset, Borg had won 11 Grand Slam titles and had compiled a record of the most consecutive wins in tennis history. He was a legend in his own time. But after his loss to the seemingly indefatigable McEnroe, the Swedish tennis star would win only two more matches, reaching the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo in 1982. Something had changed internally for Borg, and by late 1982 he announced to his family, coach, and friends that tennis was no longer fun. The 26-year-old star wanted to retire.
Yet Borg did not make a public announcement of his decision until February 1983. "I was hoping this feeling I had inside would change in January, that I would say, 'O.K., I enjoy this again,'" he told Neil Amdur of the New York Times. "When you go out on the court, you should say this is great, I'm going to hit the tennis ball, I'm going to try to win every point, and I like to make a good shot. If you don't think and feel that, it's very difficult to play."
In retiring, Borg left his fans and fellow tennis players shocked and disappointed. Many believed he could have kept on top for several years to come. "I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open," Arthur Ashe told Sports Illustrated.. "I think he could have won the Grand Slam. But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody. He'd lost touch with the real world."
After he retired, Borg set his sights on the world of business, starting with promotion work for the Swedish tourist board and SAS. Next came a series of his own ventures in real estate and other areas, under the umbrella group of Bjorn Borg Enterprises. In 1987 Borg created his own sports-apparel venture, Bjorn Borg Design Group, but only two years later the business faced major financial difficulties.
Related Biography: Coach Lennart Bergelin
Some tennis coaches focus on the mechanics of the game, teaching perfection of form, grips, and other techniques. Others emphasize strategy, inspiration, and other mental aspects of the game. Yet others strive to simply bring out the natural best in their players. It is in the third category that one finds Lennart Bergelin, who coached Bjorn Borg from 1972 until the tennis star retired in 1983.
Born in 1925 and Borg's senior by 31 years, Swedish-born Bergelin was an accomplished tennis player in his day. A two-time Swedish National Champion, Bergelin won the German Championships in 1951; for eight straight years he was the star player of Sweden's Davis Cup team. After winding down his own playing career, he turned to coaching, becoming captain of the Swedish Davis Cup team from 1970 to 1975. From 1976 onward, Bergelin turned down the captain position, and focused exclusively on training Borg and managing the tennis star's career.
When Bergelin met 15-year-old Borg, he cautioned other coaches against trying to change the talented young player's two-handed backhand and rough-looking strokes. Neither did Bergelin counter Borg's decision to stick mostly to the baseline instead of developing his volleying skills. "It's difficult to tamper with success," Bergelin said in 1980's Bjorn Borg: My Life and Game.
After Borg, at 26, announced his retirement, he grew estranged from the coach who had been a father figure to him. When Borg attempted a comeback nine years later, the tennis star chose to train not with Bergelin, but with Welsh martial-arts guru Ron Thatcher, also known as Tia Honsai.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Borg never played the Australian Open, preferring to rest during that phase of the Grand Slam tour. He retired in 1983 with a career record of 476 wins,
|Junior championships, Sormland County, Sweden
|Junior championships, Swedish National School
|13- and 14-year-old age divisions, National Junior Championships
|Orange Bowl Junior Championship
|Orange Bowl Junior Championship; Junior Wimbledon
|Italian Open singles; French Open singles
|French Open singles
|Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Player of the Year
|Inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame
|Named Swedish Sportsman of the 20th Century Davis Cup (as player): 1972-75, 1978-80. 96 losses, and 62 titles.
Pulling away from the world of tennis, he divorced his wife, Mariana, in 1984, and grew estranged from coach-mentor Lennart Bergelin. In 1985 he had a son, Robin, with the Swedish model Jannike Bjorling, but the pair never married. Although they initially agreed to share custody of the child, when Borg took up with Italian rock star Loredana Berte in 1988, Bjorling had a change of heart. Not only did she wage a custody battle, but Bjorling told a Swedish magazine that the tennis star had abused cocaine during their relationship. Borg denied any drug use, sued the magazine for defamation, and won.
It seemed that the game of life had become harder for Borg than a Grand Slam tennis match. The Swedish tabloids eagerly pursued stories about his tempestuous romantic life, his predilection for wild parties, and his business failures. Perhaps the lowest point came in February 1989, when a trip to a Milan hospital led to press reports that the tennis great had attempted suicide. Borg scoffed at the media, and denied stories that he had swallowed 60 sleeping pills. "I got sick, very sick from eating," he explained to Cindy Shmerler of the New York Times. "They pumped my stomach. I was out of the hospital in two hours, feeling very good."
The scandalous rumors did not end there, though. The press dug up more stories while following Borg's relationship with the raucous Loredana Berte, whom Borg married in 1989. Known for her flamboyant stage presence, tough-girl attitude, and hit song "Non Sono una Signora" (I'm Not a Lady), Berte loved to shock audiences. By 1991 her marriage to Borg had begun to sour, and in May of that year, journalists published stories about Berte's attempted suicide. These stories were real. The 40-year-old pop singer had written a suicide note and swallowed two bottles of sedatives; she, too, had her stomach pumped. The couple separated a year later.
Attempted a Comeback
Amid the turbulence in his personal life, Borg made a startling decision. He would return to tennis. In August 1990 he started practicing seriously in diverse locations, including Milan, Buenos Aires, and London. Just a year earlier he had told the New York Times that he had no regrets about retiring ("I don't really miss [tennis]," he said). Rumors flew that Borg needed money, since his apparel company was having financial difficulties and he had recently sold his Stockholm apartment and Vikingshill estate. The tennis star explained that he sold the properties simply to be rid of Sweden. "For six years they [the Swedish media] tried to destroy me," he told the press in Monte Carlo, where he had relocated (quoted in Sports Illustrated ). "I am happy to be out of Sweden."
Meanwhile, Borg had taken up with a new coach, 79-year-old Welshman Ron Thatcher, also known as Tia Honsai. A self-described martial arts master and mind-body fitness guru, Thatcher claimed to know nothing about tennis and seemed an odd choice for Borg's mentor. In another ill-fated decision, Borg stuck with his old Donnay wooden tennis racquet instead of switching to one of the lighter, wider, high-tech graphite models—the new racquets of choice for tennis stars of the 1990s.
Borg's return to the tour was to begin with the 1991 Monte Carlo Open, where he faced Spain's Jordi Arrese in the first round of play. The crowd, clearly moved to have the Swedish star back, roared welcomingly when Borg stepped onto the court. But the match was short-lived, as 26-year-old Arrese, then ranked only 52nd in the world, made quick work of Borg in a straight-set victory, 6-2, 6-3. Undeterred, Borg attempted another comeback the following year, to the same effect. In eight tournament tries in 1992 and three the following year, he was ousted in the first round. He played his last pro game at Moscow's Kremlin Cup in 1993, losing a close match to Aleksandr Volkov, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7).
In May 1993 Borg relinquished his desire to play the Grand Slams again. But he had found a new way to enjoy tennis—by joining the senior circuit. "Senior" meant over 35 years old, and the new Nuveen Tour, created by Jimmy Connors, was attracting large crowds. Borg happily revived his rivalry with both Connors and McEnroe, and the threesome attracted hordes of fans nostalgic for tennis stars of the 1970s and '80s. "Playing the senior circuit is fun," he told Robin Finn of the New York Times. "The other stuff isn't; the atmosphere really is not the same anymore. It just seems like the players are out there doing a job, like machines. There isn't the connection like I have with these other guys."
Borg retired from the circuit in late 2000, at 44, but he did not retire completely from tennis. By 2001, he was training a group of promising young Swedish players aged 14 to 17. "I hope to have some of them playing [professionally] next year," he told Rediff Sports. "I hope to give Swedish tennis some good players."
In the end, it is Borg's contribution to tennis, and not the tumult of his personal life, that sports fans will remember. With his contemporaries McEnroe and Connors, Borg lifted tennis to a higher level of play—and he remains one of the sport's most inspirational, larger-than-life heroes.
Where Is He Now?
"My old life is behind me," Borg told Agence France Presse in 2002. The Swedish tennis legend declared that he had put an end to his partying and wild-oat sowing, preferring to stay quietly at home with his new wife, 35-year-old real-estate agent Patricia Ostfeldt, and their children. The couple married on June 8, 2002, on an island near Stockholm. Ostfeldt has two children from a former marriage, and Borg has one son, Robin, from a previous relationship with Swedish model Jannike Bjorling. (Robin attends a special tennis high school and ranks in the top 25 in his age group.) In September 2002, Borg and Ostfeldt announced that they were expecting a child the following May. They live in Stockholm.
Address: Bjorn Borg, Association of Tennis Professionals, Monte Carlo Sun, 74 Boulevard D'Italie, 98000 Monaco.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY BORG:
(With Eugene L. Scott) Bjorn Borg: My Life and Game. Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Borg, Bjorn, and Eugene L. Scott. Bjorn Borg: My Life and Game. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Amdur, Neil. "Borg Says Tennis Is No Longer Fun." New York Times (February 3, 1983): B9.
Cohen, Charles E. "An Iceborg's Meltdown." People Weekly (May 13, 1991): 92.
Finn, Robin. "Borg Comeback II: A Passion Play Rewritten." New York Times (March 1, 1992): sec. 8, p. 1.
"For Borg, Joy Is Back but Intensity Is Gone." New York Times (May 5, 1993): B17.
"Into the Volley Strides the 36-Year-Old Borg. New York Times (July 15, 1992): B11.
Gross, Jane. "Borg on the Morning After." New York Times (September 9, 1980): C14.
Kirkpatrick, Curry. "UnBjorn: After Myriad Personal Setbacks, a Changed Bjorn Borg Made a Sad Return to Tennis." Sports Illustrated (May 6, 1991): 32.
"Love Match for Tennis Ace Borg." Agence France Press (June 8, 2002).
People Weekly (June 24, 2002): 135.
Rieger, Nancy. "Borg Realizes Dream in Running G Firm." Footwear News (October 24, 1988): 2.
Shmerler, Cindy. "Borg Still Boasts That Calm Exterior." New York Times (August 22, 1989): B7.
Time (June 1, 1992): 27.
Association of Tennis Professionals. http://www.atptour.com (October 5, 2002).
"Bjorn Borg." BBC Sport. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport/hi/english/static/in_depth/tennis/2002/wimbledon/legends/borg.stm (September 25, 2002).
"Bjorn Borg." International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/enshrinees/bjorn_borg.html (September 25, 2002).
"Bjorn Borg Finally Lets the Good Times Roll." Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/1997/08/18/feat/sports.1.html (September 25, 2002).
"The Rediff Interview: Bjorn Borg." Rediff.com. http://www.rediff.com/sports/2001/may/12borg.htm (September 25, 2002).
"Sports Icons of the 20th Century." Terra.com. http://www.terra.com/specials/sportsicons/borg_en.html (October 1, 2002).
Sketch by Wendy Kagan