Continuing with our series on the greatest tennis players of all time, here’s No. 6 on our list.
No. 6 – Bjorn Borg
Bjorn Rune Borg was born on 6th June, 1956. In January 1983, he was reborn as one of the greatest tennis players ever to wield a racket. All that happened between those years, was the transformation of tennis as a sport. Borg impregnated the game with a ‘devil may care’ style of play that made other styles seem contrived.
Children today are fascinated by how a Nintendo Wii can act like a tennis racket. In much the same way, Borg was fascinated with a golden racket his dad won at a table tennis tournament. By the time he was 13, Borg was bullying Sweden’s best under-18 players. Not by stealing their lunch money, but by denting their pride on the tennis courts. Sweden’s Davis Cup captain had then warned people not to change Borg’s rough, jerky strokes. And that could possibly be the nicest thing anyone had ever done for Borg (just saying).
At the age of 15, one year after he joined the professional circuit, Borg became one of the youngest players to represent his country in the Davis Cup. He won his debut singles game in 5 sets against Onny Parun of New Zealand. Perhaps the first top pro to use a two-handed backhand, Borg went on to win the Wimbledon juniors’ title later that year.
On his 18th birthday in 1974, Borg treated himself to his first top-level singles title at the Italian Open, and since he wasn’t done partying yet, he went on to become the then-youngest winner of the French Open. He beat Manuel Orantes in the final 2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. The next year, he won the final in straight sets, but only managed to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, losing to Arthur Ashe in 4 sets. For the next 5 years, Borg did not lose another match at Wimbledon. Talk about taking defeat to heart! Along with these five, he won six French Open titles between 1974-81 as well. In the span of 7 years, he won 11 Grand Slam titles. Borg won Wimbledon in 1976 without losing a set, in the process becoming the then-youngest male Wimbledon champion at 20 years and 1 month.
He loved being the first at things. He was the first male player to win more than five titles at two different Grand Slams, the first to win two Grand Slams without dropping a set and the first to win Wimbledon and French Open in the same year for three consecutive years. The only person to ever beat Borg at the French Open is Adriano Panatta – he was that good on clay. His defense, speed and mental toughness were seemingly from another planet; there seemed to be no way any player could possibly pierce through the Human Shield that was Borg, whether physically or mentally. And he gave new meaning to the word ‘adaptation’; while he was all dogged, impenetrable defense on the clay of Paris, he transformed his game completely on the lawns of Wimbledon, frequently approaching the net and out-attacking the best natural net-rushers in the business. Such was his dominance that it prompted Ilie Năstase to say, “We’re playing tennis, he’s playing something else.”
It was the rivalry between Borg and John McEnroe that brought the spotlight on tennis. They first played each other in 1978 in the semi-final of the Stockholm Open. McEnroe won 6-3, 6-4. Borg was beaten once again next year in the WCT final by McEnroe. But despite those losses to the player who would go on to become his arch-rival, the Swede was slowly making his way up the rankings, and after his 4th consecutive Wimbledon victory in 1979, was crowned World no. 1. The spot wasn’t new to him; he had been there in 1977 too, when he beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. However, his number 1 spot in 1977 stayed with him for only a week
Wimbledon and tennis witnessed perhaps the greatest match of all time in 1980. Borg steamrolled his opponents en route to the final where he came face-to-face with McEnroe. Everyone knew it would be a tough game but no one would have expected it to last for 3 hours 53 minutes, especially after McEnroe took the first set 6-1. Borg came back strongly and took the next two sets 7-5 and 6-3. Glory and two championship points stared him in the face when he was 5-4 up in the fourth set. Destiny, however, had different plans for that match, as did McEnroe. At 6-6 in the 4th, it looked like the tie-breaker would never end, which is actually a USP of tennis. A match, theoretically, doesn’t have a definite end time. After saving six set points and letting five match points go, Borg eventually lost the tie-break 16-18. After falling behind 15-40 on his serve in the fifth set, Borg won 19 straight points on serve, and took the fifth set 8-6. Years later he admitted that he was afraid he would lose. He felt his dominance was done. Not with that match, it wasn’t.
One year later in 1981, McEnroe exacted his revenge on the same stage. Borg had a record winning streak of 41 matches at the All England Club. John McEnroe ended that with a wonderful display of tennis as he won the final 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4. At the US Open, the same year, Borg launched his final bid to win a hardcourt Major. He battled through to the final but was foiled once again by McEnroe, losing 6-4, 2-6, 4-6, 3-6. Before the ceremony and the press conference could commence, Borg walked off the court and out of the stadium. Not a very graceful way to leave his last Grand Slam final, but then again neither was his style of play. But Borg was never about the grace, anyway. Just like his water-tight groundstrokes, Borg’s departure was effective and impactful.
Though he appeared at Monte Carlo in March 1983 and Stuttgart in 1984, his playing days were by and large over after January 1983. A career that included 77 singles titles was duly acknowledged by BBC as they awarded him the Overseas Sports Personality of the year in 1979. Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, ‘Iceman’ Borg will always be remembered as one of tennis’ all-time greats.
And now, here’s a highlights clip of some of the best moments of Borg’s Grand Slam career:
These are the other players who have made it to the list so far:
No. 20 – Venus Williams; No. 19 – Justine Henin; No. 18 – Ken Rosewall; No. 17 – Andre Agassi; No. 16 – Pancho Gonzales; No. 15 – Monica Seles; No. 14 – John McEnroe; No. 13 – Ivan Lendl; No. 12 – Jimmy Connors; No. 11 – Margaret Court; No. 10 – Billie Jean King; No. 9 – Rafael Nadal; No. 8 – Serena Williams; No. 7 – Chris Evert
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: