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Jonas Bjorkman: Making it Count

Australian Open 2008

Jonas BjorkmanGetty ImagesJonas Bjorkman hugs the Wimbledon crowd on during his run to the 2006 semifinals.

At 35, the challenges just keep coming for multi-tasking Swede Jonas Bjorkman.

The legs may be a little heavier, the feet half a step slower and the list of challengers growing longer, but Jonas Bjorkman still maintains that he's the best on tour… The best impersonator of his fellow players, that is.

"I don't want to sound cocky, but I'd still call [Novak] Djokovic the prince," Bjorkman says with a smile. "What he does well is to imitate the players, but he still hasn't been coming up with the strokes. He still has to work on that. But he's a great talent and a young guy with a very good sense of humor, so I wouldn't be surprised if I have to step aside soon and let him take over as king."

On the court, however, Bjorkman won't readily step aside for his younger rivals despite an ever-expanding list of responsibilities, which include a new baby and his role as chief editor of the new Swedish tennis magazine. Additionally, the 35 year old begins a new partnership in 2008 with Zimbabwean Kevin Ullyett while also working hard to stay competitive in singles after producing some of his best-ever Grand Slam performances as a solo act in 2006 (Wimbledon semifinals) and 2007 (fourth round at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon).

Looking further afield, Bjorkman could next year break a longstanding record for most matches (singles and doubles) played in the history of the ATP (since 1973). The Swede has played 1716 matches (comprising a 406-348 win-loss record in singles and a 675-287 record in doubles). Bjorkman is just 33 matches behind Jimmy Connors, who is No. 3 on the list. It's conceivable that by the end of 2009 he could challenge Brian Gottfried's record 1845 matches played.

But the hunt will not begin until after the Australian Open. Bjorkman is at his Monte-Carlo residence with his wife Petra, who is due to deliver her second child any day now. Bjorkman had missed just one of the past 57 Grand Slam tournaments - the 2003 Australian Open, when son Max was born.

"We are expecting a girl and we're very excited to have one of each," Bjorkman says. "Our due date is on Max's birthday (January 15), so we're hoping she comes before or after. Since there is such a short time left in my career Petra and I decided that I should try to maintain the same schedule if I have one or two more years left in me and then after that I'll take on my full responsibilities at home and be a full-time dad."

Bjorkman also has his hands full as the chief editor of the new national tennis magazine of Sweden, following the demise of the country's former national tennis publication. Former Swedish players Mats Wilander, Katarina Lindquist, Tomas Hogstedt and Carl Axel Hageskog are also working on the magazine.

"We've got a good crew who really care about Swedish tennis," Bjorkman says. "Almost a year ago we didn't have a tennis magazine at all, which was quite embarrassing for such a successful tennis nation as Sweden. I thought it was a good opportunity at this stage of my career, and it's a good opportunity to help Swedish tennis."

Bjorkman's first two interviews were with James Blake over lunch in Cincinnati and his chief doubles rivals Bob and Mike Bryan on the eve of the US Open. "I was pleased to learn that the story of the Bryans sharing the same toothbrush was a myth," Bjorkman says. "With James being voted in the Top 50 sexiest men, I couldn't hold back and not ask about his charm with the girls. But unfortunately in the story we referenced his girlfriend and ran a picture of his ex-girlfriend. I showed him the spread in Gothenberg during Davis Cup. He joked that he'll never do an interview with me again, but he took it okay. As the chief editor I have to take responsibility for a mistake like that."

Bjorkman also takes responsibility for a critical decision a decade ago that, on reflection, may have cost him a much longer tenure in the singles Top 10 . Ten years ago he enjoyed his banner season on the ATP Tour: He won three titles, qualified for the ATP World Championships, was a member of Sweden's victorious Davis Cup team and notched a 71-26 singles match record on the season. He also had his best shot of winning a Grand Slam singles title. He fell to Greg Rusedski 7-5 in the fifth set in the US Open semifinals, missing the chance to play in the final Patrick Rafter, whom he had beaten four consecutive times, including twice during the year.

Bjorkman finished a career-high No. 4 in the year-end rankings. But it remains the only Top 20 finish of his career. So what happened? Did he overachieve in 1997 or did he underachieve in subsequent years?

"It was a phenomenal year. Greed is not the right word, but I just wanted to take as much from the year as possible. I have a few regrets after that year, of course. I didn't take enough time off. I finished December 10, was back playing again in the first week of January and was burnt out by March. I started fighting with my fitness, lost a lot of pressure matches and lost confidence.

"Had I been better prepared, I think I could have stayed up there for another one or two years. Given a second chance, I would have done a lot of things differently. But I didn't have the experience, and neither did my coach or the people around me. All I can do now is give advice to other Swedish players if I see them in that situation."

Almost nine years would pass before Bjorkman advanced to his second Grand Slam semifinal. After a horror start to the 2006 season, the Swede had won just two of 12 matches heading into Nottingham, a tournament he won in 1998 and 2002.

Having lost the previous week in straight sets to unheralded Taipei player Yeu-Tzoo Wang in the first round of Queen's, things looked bleak for Bjorkman when he dropped the first set 2-6 to Argentine Agustin Calleri in the opening round of Nottingham. But the Swede rallied to win that match and went all the way to the final, where Richard Gasquet denied him a seventh career singles title.

The following week at Wimbledon, Bjorkman survived two five-setters to reach the quarterfinals, where he then took out Radek Stepanek in a five-set epic that stretched over most of the day due to rain breaks. After match point, Bjorkman added a new move to his gallery of pantomimes, stretching both arms across his body and grasping his shoulders, as if to hug the entire crowd.

"It was totally out of the blue. It was such an emotional match and I wanted to share my feelings with the fans who had been there all day. And just two or three weeks earlier I had barely won a match all year and I was asking myself whether I should quit or not. Two weeks later I'm in the Wimbledon semifinals playing Roger Federer."

Federer put a 6-2, 6-0, 6-2 beating on Bjorkman, but the Swede still says it was one of his most memorable experiences. "I shouldn't say it was enjoyable as he beat me so badly, but I felt I had the best seat in the house to see the best player in the world play his best tennis."

In 2007, at 35, Bjorkman also produced two of his best Grand Slam performances, reaching the fourth round at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. His ability to still compete strongly with the world's best is a source of pride, and the lure of breaking the record for most matches played in a career is a motivating force.

"Achieving those results late in my career is a statement to the older guys out there that it's never too late and once you pass 30 you're not done. I'm proud that I have been so healthy for so long and I stay motivated by what I can still achieve. There are two guys in Sweden - Bjorn Hellberg and Johan Porsborn - who keep coming up with all these statistics to keep me motivated. It makes me proud to learn, for example, that I've played more matches than almost anyone.

"Being a father also helps because when you get home and step back into Max's world it's easier to forget about the tough losses. The hardest part is being a dad and still being on the road so much. Max hates goodbyes. He might give you a hug, but nothing more than that. It's a sad time for him."

Not surprisingly, Max is already showing plenty of aptitude on the tennis court and, like his father, he likes to win. "He also loves soccer, but whenever I come home he wants to hit balls. He wants to compete, so we play some matches. He wants to be Jonas Bjorkman and he wants me to be Nadal. Because he wins I can say that Jonas Bjorkman has a good record against Nadal! He also likes Thomas Johansson - our families are close - and the doubles team of Simon Aspelin and Julian Knowle. Even when they beat me in Bastad he was happy for them and not so sad for me."

Bjorkman has won all four Grand Slam doubles titles - including three consecutive Wimbledons with Todd Woodbridge between 2002-04 - and is a former doubles
No. 1. With his trademark backhand return and sharp volleys, he's still one of the best doubles players on the planet.

But despite the allure of a new partnership with Ullyett, Bjorkman says he would find it difficult to continue playing as a doubles specialist if his singles game ever fell away. (He has remained consistent in the past four years, with his year-end ranking ranging between No. 54 and No.69 during that time.)

"It would be tough for me, if that time ever came. I'm happy with my career and I'd probably think that it was time to step aside. I'm used to playing so much that I don't think there would be enough excitement for me to only play doubles.

"Having said that, I'm very excited to be teaming up with Kevin after three enjoyable years with Max [Mirnyi]. I feel Kevin will be a good match-up for me. We're the same age and we both have families. We'll do well returning. Maybe our weakness is on serve, but I had great success with Todd even though we weren't big servers. You can compensate with good tactics and placement on the serve.

"Quite a few guys came up to both Max and me after the US Open and asked about our plans for 2008. We both felt that we wanted to give it a try in the fall but ultimately we didn't have a great season. After fighting for the No. 1 spot with the Bryans for the past two years it was a disappointment to be No. 7 or No. 8 last year and to only win one tournament. We had three great years and I highly respect Max, and hopefully we can both do well with different partners."

Bjorkman may be turning 36 in March, but many challenges lay ahead. You can be sure that he will attack each and every one with his trademark gusto to wring as much as he can from his final years on tour. Then, and only then, will he be finally ready to step aside. Nothing will be left on the table.

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