Commentary

Precocious Borg captivated public with robotic demeanor, lethal game

He'd saunter onto the court with his long locks, headband and ice-cool demeanor. The ladies cherished him, while his modern strokes transcended the game. Bjorn Borg was a rock star with a racket. By age 26, he was one of the greatest of all time, winning 11 Grand Slam titles.

Updated: May 8, 2008, 11:35 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Bjorn BorgAction Plus/Icon SMIIn a career that spanned just 10 years, Bjorn Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam events he competed in.

In April, ESPN.com asked you, the users, to name tennis' greatest living legends. On May 5, we began rolling out your top five in ascending order, beginning with the "Rocket" Rod Laver at No. 5. The remaining legends will be presented each day, until No. 1 is revealed on Friday, May 9.

The scenario seems almost unfathomable nowadays in tennis: Hundreds of girls screaming with envy watching a match, flooding the court when proceedings ended in an effort to simply touch their idol, and pouncing on him as he made his way back to his accommodations -- necessitating police intervention.

Well, it happened to Bjorn Borg in his Wimbledon debut in 1973.

Borg was the closest thing the sport had to a rock star back then, and perhaps no player has captured the public's imagination the same way since.

His long, blond locks, trademark headband and lean frame had his female fans drooling, while his two-handed backhand, superb fitness and mental toughness had opponents fearing. The lack of emotion and shyness only added to the intrigue.

By the time his career ended, some would say prematurely, the Swede won six French Open titles and five at Wimbledon, claiming both in the same season three times, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Borg last did it in 1980. His rivalry with John McEnroe, inability to win the U.S. Open and life post-retirement made for compelling plot lines, too.

"I don't think he's recognized as being a great a player as he was," said tennis historian Bud Collins, who covered Borg in his heyday. "When you win six French and five Wimbledons, no one has done that. To so quickly go across the Channel from one difficult surface to another, it's a good argument for him being the greatest player of all time."

Born in the picturesque town of Sodertalje, south of Stockholm, Borg's fascination with tennis began when his father, Rune, who died of cancer in March, handed him a racket he'd won at a table tennis tournament. He developed quickly.

The man who would become his longtime coach and close friend, Lennart Bergelin, spotted the younger Borg at a youth tournament and knew he had immense potential.

"Bjorn lost that final, but I saw what a talented boy he was -- how fast he always was coming right to the ball," said Bergelin, 83 in June. "I saw his double-handed backhand and early preparation. The double-handed backhand was criticized but, in my eyes, seemed to suit his game well."

In fact, Percy Rosberg, Borg's first coach, recalled that Swedish journalists called his game, which at the time featured unique topspin groundstrokes, awful. Rosberg wasn't a fan at first, either.

"In my mind, he played a little too high over the net," he said. "I didn't like to watch his kind of tennis. But when I sat down and watched him play, his opponent had to play good because Bjorn never missed."

Like the young Roger Federer, Borg had a temper, and he was suspended for six months when he was 12 or 13 for bad behavior. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in his career, leading to the on-court demeanor he was so well known for.

"I wanted to play tennis so badly, so I said to myself, 'It's better not to be mad and have a temper,'" Borg said. "Maybe they would suspend me again. I was very quiet on the court. Sometimes of course I was boiling inside, but that was kind of a learning process, and one day I could focus and concentrate by not doing anything, to keep everything inside, and I think that's why I was performing as well on the tennis court. If I wanted to shout around or use temper on the court, then I would lose my focus and concentration immediately."

Given his success in Paris and London, and the tribulations at the U.S. Open, Borg's Davis Cup prowess is often overlooked. He made his debut as a 15-year-old in 1972, lifted Sweden to an inaugural title three years later and compiled a 37-3 singles record, remarkably winning his last 33, a record.

Greatest Living Legends

Date Player
May 5 Rod Laver
May 6 Martina Navratilova
May 7 Bjorn Borg
May 8 Steffi Graf
May 9 Pete Sampras
"He was a good team player," Collins said. "The guys all liked him."

Barely 18, Borg downed Spaniard Manuel Orantes at the French Open in 1974 for his first major, rallying from two sets down. Current clay-court king Rafael Nadal was barely 19 when he triumphed at Roland Garros three years ago and is the three-time defending champion. But Bergelin and Rosberg are adamant Borg was a better dirt player. (Borg himself dismissed the comparisons.)

His breakthrough at the All England Club came three years after his maiden appearance, against eccentric Romanian Ilie Nastase. Borg cruised in the final, and Nastase, referring to the ice-cool demeanor, famously dubbed his opponent a "robot" and "Martian."

"He still does sometimes," Borg, now 51, said with a laugh.

The last of his Wimbledon crowns came in 1980 against McEnroe, in what many consider the greatest match of all time. Borg squandered five championship points in that epic 18-16 fourth-set tiebreak, only to recover and take the fifth 8-6.

The hysteria surrounding Borg in those early days never really waned.

Bergelin, a prolific Davis Cupper himself, did his best to shelter his protégé. He'd swap hotel rooms with Borg to confuse the chasing pack, sometimes answering the door in his pajamas, and generally kept a lookout.

"It was fun," Borg said. "There were always things happening. All those years I had as a top player, it came from our heart, and we had a great time. Those incidents like someone coming up to the door -- Lennart always had a room next to me. He could always hear if someone was on my door. That's why he opened his door and asked, 'What are you doing here? Bjorn is sleeping and you have to go.' We had so many good memories, not only on the court."

[+] EnlargeBjorn Borg
Getty ImagesBorg widely is regarded as one of the great precocious achievers, but he called it quits far too soon.
He keeps in touch with Rosberg and Bergelin, speaking with the latter regularly and getting together for dinner and on special occasions with both of them.

"With tennis I always say, 'We did this, we won this,' because he became like a second father," Borg said.

The Wimbledon magic was never duplicated at the U.S. Open.

Borg lost all four of his finals -- Bergelin felt Borg never took to playing under the lights -- and the 1981 loss to McEnroe was a knockout blow. Fed up with tennis and traveling, he called it quits in 1982.

"Maybe I could have won more Grand Slam tournaments; who knows?" said Borg, who went winless in a brief comeback in the early 1990s, wooden racket in tow. "To stop at 26 was very young. I think I could have had another five years in top tennis if I continued, but I have no regrets. When you lose that motivation or lose your focus a little bit, it's very difficult to be on the top."

His life away from tennis hasn't been all smooth sailing. Borg reportedly attempted suicide in 1989 and has been divorced twice. He married current wife Patricia Ostfeldt six years ago, and their son, Leo, Borg's second, turns 5 in the middle of May.

When he decided to auction his Wimbledon trophies in 2006, it sparked reports he was in financial ruin. Spurred by a phone call from McEnroe, he eventually chose not to sell.

Borg's fashion label went bust in 1990 and later relaunched. Last year, according to the annual report, Bjorn Borg (the company, that is) posted a 75 percent increase in profit after tax to 102 million Swedish kronor ($17 million), and there are plans to penetrate the U.S. and Asian markets soon, Borg said. He spends two or three days a week in the office and competes on the seniors' tour. Having witnessed Federer's epic win over Nadal in the Wimbledon final in 2007 from the royal box, Borg is scheduled to take in the second week of both the French and Wimbledon in the coming months.

He looks back on his career with immense satisfaction.

"I'm happy that I started something new in tennis, like I came from Sweden, long hair and headband," he said. "I played different, with a lot of topspin, with two hands on my backhand; not too many players did that. I started kind of a new revolution in tennis. A lot of people took that style and that image after me, from me. I'm very proud of that."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.