Class of 1987
World No. 1 (1977)
Grand Slam Results
11-time major champion and five-time finalist
Overall Record: 696-209
Singles Record: 609-127
Doubles Record: 87-82
Member of the Swedish Davis Cup Team 1972-1975, 1978-1980
Member of the 1975 Swedish Championship Davis Cup Team
Overall Record: 45-11
Singles Record: 37-3
Doubles Record: 8-8
Björn Borg was a rock ‘n roll star draped in tennis clothes.
His massive appeal, based not only on his extraordinary tennis ability, but on his good looks and shy manner, made him a worldwide tennis teen idol. “He was like the Beatles for God’s sake,” said Ingrid Lofdahl-Bentzer, a close Borg friend.
Borg polarized tennis in the 1970s. Known as the “ice man” for his frosty temperament on court – never, ever letting his opponent get a hint of what was boiling inside him – Borg was the epitome of cool. Everything from the way he walked onto the court, to his long hair that flowed to his shoulders, to the headbands he always wore, to his Donnay racquet that featured a longer leather handle to accommodate his two-handed backhand, created hysteria.
He was tennis’s biggest drawing card. It was called “Borgmania.”
You’d have to search sporting annals long and hard to find an athlete in any sport that rose to meteoric heights like Borg, an 11-time major singles champion in just seven years (1974-81), who dramatically stunned and shocked the tennis world by retiring at age 26. Even in such a short time span, Borg left an indelible legacy on tennis history. He won six French Open championships (second best in history behind Rafael Nadal’s ten) and four consecutively (1978-81). Borg dominated Wimbledon like no other player since Willie Renshaw did when he won six straight championships (1881-1886), capturing five consecutive titles from 1976 to 1980, his five-set marathon victory over John McEnroe in 1980 considered one of the greatest tennis matches in history. Borg’s five titles at Wimbledon are the third highest in history behind Roger Federer (eight titles) and Pete Sampras (seven titles).
Borg’s name stands alone in a half dozen all-time best tennis records: He won 89.8 percent of his major matches; won three of his 11 major titles without losing a set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 French, 1980 French), captured three consecutive channel slams (French and Wimbledon) from 1978-80 and had 14 consecutive victories in major semifinals. At Wimbledon, his 92.7 winning percentage based on a 51-4 record from 1973-81 won’t likely ever be broken, nor will his 41 consecutive match winning streak achieved from 1976-81. He reeled off a 49-2 (96 percent) winning streak at the French Open, second best to Nadal, a position he firmly holds.
He was born in Sodertaljie, an industrial town 20 miles outside of Stockholm. His tennis career began inauspiciously. His father had won a table tennis tournament when Borg was age 8. In the options of available prizes, young Björn asked his father to choose a tennis racquet. The very next day he was playing tennis with his friends and said he “loved the game from the beginning … from the first ball [he] hit.” A garage door was Borg’s first opponent; he would spend hours pounding the ball against an object that would become as unyielding as the Swede himself. Borg’s parents never pushed him into competitive tennis, it was solely his decision. “When I was eight or nine years old, I had two dreams,” Borg said. “One to be part of the Swedish Davis Cup team and the second to play on Wimbledon Centre Court.”
Dreams do come true. He achieved both. Five Wimbledon Gentlemen Singles Championships would follow and in 1975 Borg led his small Nordic country to the Davis Cup championship at Kings Hall in Stockholm, the very same venue where he began playing tennis, with a 3-2 victory over Czechoslovakia. It was the first time in the 75 year history of the Davis Cup that a country other than Britain, France, Australia, or the United States had won the cup.
The unorthodox strokes that enamored Borg to worldwide audiences were rooted in his game from the outset, and caught the attention of the Swedish Tennis Federation. While his strokes lacked style, his footwork was extraordinary. In 1971 at age 15, Borg connected with longtime coach and mentor Lennart Bergelin, who as Davis Cup Captain selected the scrawny and athletically raw teenager to play on Sweden’s Davis Cup team the following year. Bergelin was an integral part of Borg’s stardom. In 1972, prior to Davis Cup play, Borg made his presence known by winning the prestigious Orange Bowl in Miami over Vitas Gerulaitis in the boys’ under-18 final.
In 1973, as the No. 6 Borg made his professional debut at Wimbledon, losing in a five-set quarterfinal match to Brit Roger Taylor. Less than a year later, at the 1974 French Open, Borg became the youngest champion in history, when as an 18-year-old he defeated Spain’s Manuel Orantes in devastating fashion after dropping the first two sets, 2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. Compatriot Mats Wilander swiped that distinction as a 17-year-old in 1982, and then was surpassed by a younger Michael Chang in 1989. It was the first of six championships for Borg in Paris, the second coming consecutively in 1975 when as the No. 1 seed he throttled Argentine Guillermo Vilas, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. Borg reeled off four straight French Open championships in 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981. He defeated Vilas again in 1978 (6-1, 6-1, 6-3), Victor Pecci of Paraguay in 1979 (6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4), Vitas Gerulaitis in 1980 (6-4, 6-1, 6-2), and Ivan Lendl in a five-set struggle in 1981 (6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1).
Borg’s heavy topspin forehand and two-handed backhand became the craze. Everyone from recreational players to touring pros tried to emulate the style – not only in Borg’s stroke production, but how he comported himself on court with a controlled, emotionalist demeanor – but no one could come close. “He had this thing about him that was inexplicable,” said John McEnroe in the HBO documentary McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice. “I don’t know what it is, why it is, but is it. Certain people have this incredible aura that I can’t explain without having to do anything. It’s like he got into his superman outfit … I did try in practice just for the hell of it, to be like that, but I couldn’t do it in practice, so I wasn’t going to waste my time in a match trying to be like he was. I felt like letting things out was healthier than keeping things in.”
Said Borg, “They didn’t really know what I was thinking or how I was feeling, if I am laughing or crying or disappointed or happy, they don’t know that because I kept it all to myself. That didn’t mean I wasn’t boiling inside, but I would never let anyone see that.”
Borg’s western grip, which he used on both sides, was unnatural, but it produced wicked topspin. The grip limited his volleying proficiency, though he often released his left hand when at net, but made his baseline game explosive. His topspin groundstroke game was potent and forceful – his backhand resembling a hockey slap shot – and a Borg hit ball would jump off the court like it was on fire and looking for water. While other pros dabbled in topspin play, Borg turned it into an art form on every single shot. No one strung their racquets as tightly as Borg: they had a distinct musical ping when strung to his demanding perfection.
The small and thin 15-year-old filled out proportionally as an 18-year-old, his shoulders strong and broad and his legs thick and muscular. He played with stamina and endurance, and when combined with his steely focus, made Borg virtually unbeatable, which his statistical records confirm. “I want to win every single point from the first minute to the last minute,” Borg said. “When I am playing, I am 100 percent serious.”
Borg took that stern approach to new levels at Wimbledon, where he became a five-time champion from 1976-81. The surface wasn’t natural for Borg in his first foray in 1973, but he adapted quickly. His first title in 1976 was impressive, 6-4, 6-2, 9-7 over Ilie Năstase, who assessed Borg’s game by saying, “We’re playing tennis, and he’s playing something else.” Borg disposed of Jimmy Connors (3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4) in 1977 and again in 1978 (6-2, 6-2, 6-3). He defeated the big-serving Roscoe Tanner in 1979 (6-7, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4) and in 1980 defeated McEnroe, who was playing in his first-ever Wimbledon final, in an epic match, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6. The 34-point tiebreaker that decided the fourth set, saw McEnroe thwart off five match points and Borg stave off six set points himself before McEnroe prevailed to force a fifth set.
“There’s a magic when our names are mentioned together,” said McEnroe “We brought tennis to a place it wasn’t at before.”
“It’s a match I will remember for the rest of my life,” Borg said of the 4 ½ hour classic.
In 1981, Borg was attempting to erase the 100-year Wimbledon record held by Renshaw and win his sixth straight. He and McEnroe played another match for the ages in the finals, but outcome was reversed, McEnroe winning, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.
Borg had long said that, “winning is the most beautiful thing for a tennis player. It doesn’t matter how much you win, you’re so happy, it’s a wonderful feeling. You just feel like you’re at the top of the mountain. It’s like a dream.” But when Borg lost to McEnroe on July 4 1981, it marked the last great day of his reign, though he would advance to the finals of the US Open that year, a major he failed to win in four championship match appearances. Losing had never rested easily with Borg, but when he lost to McEnroe, he displayed a disturbing and uncharacteristic shrug. “When you lose you should get disappointed, because it’s not good to say to yourself, ‘I don’t really care, what’s the big deal, I lost in this final, but that’s what exactly what happened to me. I lost in the big final and didn’t really care that I lost, and that’s not me. After that I realized that what’s happening to me.”
Borg’s magic had dissipated, the years of stress, sacrifice, and travel had taken its toll and he succumbed to burnout. He took three months off in attempts to rekindle his fire, but it had been doused. He played a string of exhibition matches and only one tournament in Monte Carlo throughout 1982. On January 23, 1983 while traveling in Bangkok, he announced his retirement at age 26. Borg flirted with comebacks in 1991, 1992, and 1993, but all to no avail.
When Borg retired from tennis in 1983 after a decade on the tour, he held the Open Era record for most major championships with 11. He is tied with Rod Laver for singles major wins. Roy Emerson (who is currently tied with Novak Djokovic) ended his career, which spanned the amateur and Open Eras, with 12 singles titles. The overall and Open Era marks have since been surpassed by Sampras (14), Nadal (16) and current holder Federer (19). He is in the sixth position all-time in major final appearances (16). His 141-16 (89.8 percent) match record at the majors is nearly two percent better than Nadal’s, a record Borg has held for nearly three decades. He won two major titles in the same season three times, tied for second best all-time with Sampras. His eight-year streak of winning at least one major title currently ranks second with Sampras and Federer. On clay, Borg won 93 percent of his matches (second best), 89 percent on grass (third best) and 85 percent on hard courts (sixth best).
Borg won 64 career tournament championships in singles (sixth best) in 88 final appearances and compiled a 609-127 record, which on percentage (83 percent) ranks second best in history. He was the ITF champion from 1978-80 and the ATP Player of the Year from 1976-80. Those distinctions cemented his place among the all-time greats, and didn’t need affirmation, but Borg received it when in his 1979 biography Jack Kramer had already listed the Swede among his 21 all-time great players. Although Borg, who rose to No. 1 in the world in August 1977, never won the US Open in ten attempts or Australian Open (only entered once in 1974), outsiders made more of those “failures” than Borg. “I didn’t lie awake at night wondering why I didn’t win at Flushing Meadows,” he said. “That just wasn’t going to happen.”
The Björn Borg Story was published in 1975, and Eugene Scott wrote Borg’s autobiography, My Life and Game in 1980.
In a May 6, 1991 Sports Illustrated article, the ever-articulate Arthur Ashe put Borg’s career in perspective, saying, “I think Björn could have won the US Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam. But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn’t mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody.”
French Open: W 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981
Wimbledon: W 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980
US Open: F 1976, 1978, 1980, 1981