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ATP Heritage: Borg At The Championships

Borg At Wimbledon

Borg© Getty ImagesBjorn Borg, who made his first appearance at Wimbledon in 1973, won 41 straight matches and five titles at The Championships.

Bjorn Borg first competed at the All England Club as a fresh-faced teenager 40 years ago. By the time he made his last appearance at The Championships in 1981, he had become a sporting icon.

In nine visits to the hallowed lawns, he won 51 of his 55 singles matches (.927).

Between losing to eventual champion Arthur Ashe in the 1975 quarter-finals and to John McEnroe in the 1981 final, he clinched five Wimbledon titles and won 41 consecutive matches. 

"He was easily one of the greatest champions ever," Vijay Amritraj told at Wimbledon. "We use the word 'great' very loosely nowadays, but, to me, he was truly the second greatest of all time – Rod Laver first and Borg second."

As a 17 year old, Borg caused a sensation on his debut at The Championships in 1973. He reached the quarter-finals (l. to Taylor) and with each passing year his legion of fans grew. 

Part of his mystique lay in the fact that he was "a man of very few words", Brian Gottfried admitted to "I spoke to him more on the ATP Champions Tour than I did in 10 years together on the main circuit."

No one really knew Borg, who won at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in three consecutive years (1978-80). Rafael Nadal (2008, 2010) and Roger Federer (2009), who have both also finished year-end No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, have since repeated the feat.

This year the ATP pays special tribute to the 25 former World No. 1s as part of the ATP Heritage programme, marking 40 years since the ranking system was introduced in 1973. 

Learn About The ATP Heritage Programme


As a result of his unprecedented success at The Championships, Borg became a slave to superstition.

BorgStaying with his fellow Swede and coach, Lennart Bergelin, at the Holiday Inn in Swiss Cottage, north London, Borg trained with hitting partners for six hours a day, for 10 straight days, on the grass courts of The Cumberland Club. It was there, each year, that he started to grow a beard. One of between 10-20 rituals that he observed.

His resting pulse rate was 45 beats per minute as he slept in a dark, temperature-controlled room. He travelled to The Championships by the same route every day and sat on the same Centre Court chair – the furthest from the umpire. At night, he ate in the hotel as dozens of girls waited in the lobby. Bergelin took care of the smallest of details.

In an era when tennis was all about serve and volleying, Borg bucked the trend. "A four-stroke rally on grass courts was considered long at the time," said Gottfried. "Tennis balls were quicker and the sweet spot on wooden racquets was smaller."

Serene and self-assured, emotionless but calculating, Borg played from the baseline. He was one of the first players to hit with a double-handed backhand and his top-spin groundstrokes made it very difficult for his opponents to attack him. 

"His forehand, first serve and passing shots were his best strokes on a grass court," Gene Mayer, who lost to Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon quarter-finals, told "He was able to out-compete and out-last the hitters of the day. His consistency and tenacity commanded respect and he tamed the lions."

Percy Rosberg had refined Borg's double-handed backhand when he was 11 and 12. Years later, Rosberg advised another former year-end World No. 1, Stefan Edberg, the 1988 and 1990 Wimbledon champion, to get rid of his.

"Bjorn was the kind of player that when things got really very difficult he was at his absolute best," said Amritraj, who shook his head at the memory of narrowly losing to Borg in the 1979 Wimbledon second round. "He was never a grass-court player. He just wasn't. Bjorn struggled, but he never lost the big ones."

At the time, Wimbledon's grass was very quick, lighter balls were used and there were a lot of good grass-court players – Roscoe Tanner, Brian Gottfried, Raul Ramirez, Dick Stockton, Peter McNamara, Peter Fleming and Mark Edmondson

BorgBorg won five straight Wimbledon crowns, beating Ilie Nastase (1976), Connors (1977-78), Tanner (1979) and McEnroe (1980). 

"Big servers had a greater chance of beating Bjorn, who played further behind the baseline than Jimmy Connors," recalls Gottfried, who played Borg twice at Wimbledon. "But Bjorn moved so well and was very good when under pressure. Even at the height of his success, he was never arrogant."

His final Wimbledon triumph and, in particular, the fourth set of his 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6 victory over McEnroe, has attained legendary status. Borg believes that “mentally, the decider was the best set of tennis I ever played.”  

Mayer says, "Bjorn was a marked man that everyone was trying to dethrone." McEnroe finally ended Borg’s streak at Wimbledon, 4-6, 7-6(1), 7-6(4), 6-4, in the 1981 final. "It was not a great surprise as McEnroe had gone close to beating Borg in 1980," says Gottfried.

Two months later, Borg and McEnroe played their 14th and final FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting (7-7 overall) in the US Open final. By the end of the season, Borg had stepped away from tennis aged 25. 

"You didn't have to be extroverted as Vitas Gerulaitis, or John McEnroe for that matter, but he was introverted in his behaviour," said Amritraj. "He lived in a cocoon during his whole life span of tennis. It was all a bit too much. So the end came very quickly for him to quit the game. Then he opened up."

The Swede compiled a 609-128 (.826) record and won 64 titles, according to the FedEx ATP Reliability Index. Borg may have been a man of very few words, but he left an indelible mark on the sport.

Watch Borg on his 1976 Wimbledon triumph

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