The Man Who Made Tennis Cööl

By Nigel Graber

As ’76 breaks, British life means three TV channels as grisly-grey as the sky. They carry fuzzy dispatches about rampant inflation, the Grunwick dispute, and billion-dollar bailouts from international banks. Meanwhile, the Sex Pistols spit in our faces and hairy footballers hoof heavy balls through cloying English mud. 

But in June, my world explodes. The gods bring sunshine that suggests a scorched-earth policy. The country is staggering into a fabled summer. Colour, light and life flood my dishcloth-drab world. 

Every day tops 30 degrees. The grass browns and earth cracks. It’s the summer of hosepipe bans, rampant ladybirds, and doomed fish.

Up on the usually frozen North-East coast, I know this is exceptional. This is a place where the North Wind routinely whips icy sea-spray against crumbling Marsden Rock and the lonesome Groyne Pier. 

I’m 13 and I’m posted to my gran’s for the summer with my uber-cool Adidas bag. Heatwave aside, though, my enthusiasm for the annual arrangement hasn’t troubled the Richter scale. ‘I think someone thinks he might be getting too old for this,’ she says. 

Yes, I’ve outgrown my Batman outfit and rummaging through rockpools no longer rivets. The beams from Souter Lighthouse that sweep my room at night and the clanks from the shipyard by day secretly make me sad. But I’m a sensitive kid and I cry privately at the idea of upsetting my gran like this. 

I search for something to hold my faltering attention. Then, something finds me. Something electric, something resolutely alive, something poundingly unreal. 

My experience of tennis to this point has been limited and unsatisfactory. Burly Australians and Americans welt unreturnable serves. If the point doesn’t die with a swiftly dispatched volley, then it takes a thousand very slow cuts all wrapped around the movement, footwork and poise of bad ballet.

No, the ‘artistic’ era of tennis wasn’t for me. Happily, on my grandparents’ 20-inch monochrome TV set, something altogether different is unfolding. 

A Viking has invaded Centre Court. He’s not charging the net as his contemporaries are wont to do. Instead, he hugs the baseline, commands it. 

His groundstrokes are loose buggy whips, an extension of the thin and linear force that begins in his deep-bent legs, gathers momentum throughout a lithe body, and explodes into the ball with a controlled yet violent twist of a toned torso. He dances on the balls of his feet, sharp shoulder blades like the wings of a diving eagle. 

This, I learn, is Björn Borg. He’s from Sweden, but he could be from Neptune. The American guy gets to net, but he might as well have been in it, like a fish, for all the good it does him. Borg uncoils his backhand and a mortar strike, almost invisible on the blurry screens of the day, smacks home.

There’s precious little slicing and dicing on view. Borg is hitting over the ball with an open stance. The spin is torrid, yet logical. There’s a net out there. To counteract it, a groundstroke should be like that looping mortar shot, not a bullet.

And what’s this? The Swede has two hands on that backhand, right up until the point of impact, the racket a continuation of his tanned arms, in a smart adaptation of a hockey slapshot. 

This isn’t the death-grip two-fisters we’d see in later years from Mats Wilander and Anders Jarryd. It’s languid, almost liquid, with a deep coil. In 1976, where others chopped at the ball, Borg flowed it over the net like water.

I’m 13, I’m impressionable, and I’ve never seen tennis played like this. Beyond Borg’s unique game, though, is something else. Something I’d come to know as an aura.

Some human beings live among us, yet they’re above us. They’re the eye at the centre of the cyclone, the silk against rough-hewn cotton. So it was with Borg. He was a fighter pilot, high above earthly concerns, aloft of the dirty business of trench warfare, fighting a clean battle way above the clouds.

In 1980, the year of Borg’s final triumph at Wimbledon, I’d visit Sweden and Norway, experience the stillness and silence of the Arctic tundra and understand a little of Björn’s serenity. His friend, the late Vitas Gerulaitis, told it best: ‘He simply doesn’t speak if there’s no need to say anything.’

And there’s another aspect to all of this. I’m a straight guy, not naturally attracted to other men. But there are men I’d like to look like. And this man… this man. Oh Lord. 

The sweep of blond hair tamed by the iconic headband. The cobalt eyes and Viking beard. The sinewed limbs. All wrapped up in THAT Fila gear and a cool mystique that would shame a misty millpond. One fan at Wimbledon danced her delight through each of his matches one year while twirling her bra above her head.

Borg gives the camera a slight smile following his iconic 1980 Wimbledon final victory.

In the late 70s, Borg advanced both the physicality and the mentality of tennis, outpacing rivals with iron discipline, drills, and dietary application. Marty Riessen, one of three Americans he would brush aside on the way to that ‘76 Wimbledon title, played with Borg for the Cleveland Nets in the World Team Tennis League. 

He said, ‘At Cleveland, the three guys were Björn, myself, and Bob Giltinan from Australia, and my abiding memory is Björn wanting to practise four hours straight – and Bob and I had to split that time to keep up with him, two hours each, back-to-back.’

Borg had a heartbeat as low as his string tension was high. His volleys on the Wimbledon grass – and he volleyed often – were low, flat and deep. On the way to five straight Wimbledon titles, he whipped Connors and McEnroe, players whose games were born for fast grass. And he lifted the French Open trophy six times.

Björn Borg showed me what tennis could be. But he also opened my eyes to another world. Life until then had been an insular British one of fish and chips, Dickie Davies teleprinter football on dismal winter afternoons, hooligan rebellion, and grey people doing grey things under grey skies. 

Borg carried the continental scent of Euro-chic. Even if I could follow it at the time largely only through the tennis press, the circuit followed the sun. Players touched down in glamorous spots: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Sydney, California, Rome and Paris. And images of Björn captured him wherever life was coolest. Borg with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 in New York. Borg and Johnny Mac playing the Classic Tour in St Tropez. Borg with Vitas under a cerulean sky on the marble terraces of the Monte Carlo Country Club. On the cover of Sports Illustrated. Running his sports outlet on the Avenue Princess Grace that winds around the Corniche Riviera.

Borg left tennis far too early, burned out and bothered. His legacy, though, includes a Wimbledon final for the ages from 1980 that features the classic 18-16 fourth-set tiebreak against Johnny Mac.

The event is encapsulated stirringly in the documentary ‘McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice’. The two friends reunite on Centre Court, staring wistfully across the game’s holiest patch, haunting violins in full flow. Borg turns to Mac and says, ‘You know, if you had broken me in the first game of the fifth set, then you would probably have won the match.’ He leaves it a beat or two as Mac smiles, then snaps his fingers, grins and adds in his broken Swedish-English… ‘BUT YOU DEEDN’T.’

Borg was an exotic god, larger than life, like a great movie or a favourite pop song heard leaping from the airwaves for the first time. His life within tennis was one of taut control, yet it began to unravel after he retired aged 26. 

The media carried reports of his business insolvency, his two divorces, a child-custody battle, and a Milan sleeping-pill overdose he insists was an accident. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to believe he could be mortal, as flawed and flimsy as the rest of us.

Today, life is happier. According to Mac, Borg is ‘somewhat at peace’. In Fire and Ice, John recalls Borg on the phone saying he loved him, and getting reprimanded by his wife for not responding in kind. Finally, John admits, ‘I’ve managed to get to the point where I can say it back.’

Borg was an enigma, but the third time he plays McEnroe, in New Orleans, is instructive about the Swede’s mentality. John’s acting up. Borg summons him to the net. ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna tell me I’m the biggest asshole that ever lived.’ Instead, Borg says, ‘Listen, John, this is just a game. Relax, take it easy.’ 

It was just a game. But Borg played it in a new way. A way that transcended ordinary experience, with unfaltering focus and pounding athletic violence. I’ll remember a rare fire that burned brightly and too briefly, and a legacy forever intertwined with that steaming summer of ’76.

Björn Borg didn’t just usher in the new, power era in men’s tennis. He was the new era. He ignited a love of the modern game in me, steering a misfit teenager into an adulthood I could almost be proud of. I’ll always be grateful.


One thought on “The Man Who Made Tennis Cööl

  1. Great action packed writing as ever Nigel… your Dad would be proud…. he used to play tennis as you know and write too.. in a sort of quirky way .. Look forward to the ongoing story of your Cool Life..


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