B(j)orn winner

We get a measure of Bjorn Borg through the fact that Rafael Nadal, the finest claycourter we have seen in recent times, is chasing his record in Paris while Roger Federer, possibly the greatest player we have seen, is chasing his record at Wimbledon. What these two grand players do together every June-July, the Swede did alone in his brilliant summers, writes Rohit Brijnath.

If you were born after 1965, your memories of him may be unclear. You may have studied pictures of him growing up, noted the artist's unkempt beard, the carefully taped fingers as if he were a boxer, that trophy he is always holding. You might have caught footage of him by accident on Wimbledon rain days, the rolling walk of the sailor who's just found dry land, or sinking in triumphant, holy relief to his knees, or executing another folded-knee passing shot of impassive engineering.

But the reverence Bjorn Borg was held in, maybe you can't feel it, and that's understandable, for sometimes you need to be there, in that time, to be infected by awe. But to get a sniff, a sense, of who he was, what extraordinary things he did, perhaps we need only to look at Nadal and Federer. We get a measure of this Swede through the fact that the Spaniard, the finest claycourter we have seen in recent times, is chasing his record in Paris (four French in a row, six in all) while on the other side of the Channel, the Swiss, possibly the greatest player we have seen, is chasing his record at Wimbledon (five consecutive wins).

What these two grand players do together every June-July, Borg did alone in his brilliant summers.

It might be said, without fear of too much contradiction, that Borg's five Wimbledon victories between 1976-80 is the second most astonishing feat in tennis after Rod Laver's two Grand Slams. In the Open era no player, not Laver himself, nor Connors, McEnroe, Sampras has won the same Grand Slam title five times in succession; in the past 80 years only Roy Emerson has won five straight, at the Australian Open from 1963-1967.

The magnificence of Borg's feat, its absurdity almost, arrives from the truth that he was primarily a clay-court beast, a baseliner hugger, his game was built for the long, steady, sliding rally in red dust.

His five Wimbledon wins, on the face of it, are thus as inexplicable as serve-volleyer McEnroe winning five straight French Opens.

Of course, the American failed to win even one, so did Newcombe, Becker, Edberg, Rafter and Federer, the famous fast court men of our times. It is interesting that in Borg's book, `My Life And Game', that McEnroe says: "The most satisfying place for me to beat Borg? The French Championships in Paris on clay over five sets.'' Indeed, the year the book was written, 1980, was when Borg had done exactly the same to him on Wimbledon grass.

What the five Wimbledon victories did was alter our definition of Borg. The clay-court suit in itself did not fit any more, and Rex Bellamy, the English writer, produced some measure of an answer when he wrote: "A more precise view is that he is a great grass-court champion who played even better on clay."

That Wimbledon immediately followed Paris, with just enough time to switch shoes, was significant. No two surfaces are as disparate as grass and clay, and no two Slams have so short a break (two weeks in those days) between them. In three of the five years that Borg won Wimbledon, 1978, 1979, 1980, he also won the French, a hat-trick so unique it had never been achieved before, looks unlikely to be repeated in the next century, and is reason why Federer's five Wimbledons, should he get there, will have not have the same resonance. While Borg was still sweating in Paris, many of his peers had exited the tournament, already sharpening their volleys in England. The more the Swede won at Roland Garros the more he expended energy and the less he had time to adjust his game for the slick turf. And this alteration, this adjustment from clay to grass, was, and is (though less so because the grass is slower and bounces higher), tennis' finest examination of character, of technique, of adjustment, of focus, of concentration.

It's like Borg took a screwdriver, and spanner, and made these tiny adjustments to his game, abbreviating his backswing, fiddling with the footwork, readying for low bounces, moving forward not sideways, poking at volleys, so many things he'd never really do during most days of the year yet somehow, for these two weeks, managing to do them better than anyone in the world. If he was a splendid piece of machinery, well, then, he was also a master mechanic.

Ramesh Krishnan, who played the Swede twice in 1981, says of the alterations Borg made: "On clay, he would just roll it in (his serve). On grass, his first serve became more of a weapon. And his second serve was adequate to defend. He flattened his groundstrokes on grass and came into the net quite a bit. You will see a big difference in his game if you compare his matches in 1976 to 1981. He kept adding on to his game.''

Still, inevitably, Borg faced examinations in Wimbledon's early rounds while he corrected himself. In 1977, Mark Edmondson led him 6-3, 9-7 in the second round; in 1978, Victor Amaya was up two sets to one and a break in the first round; in 1979, Vijay Amritraj led two sets to one in the second round. Each time Borg prevailed in five sets, not merely faster, or fitter, but unlike his opponents mentally convinced that victory was within his reach.

Borg was a believer, he found ways to summon the shot he required. The more you pushed him, the tougher he got, the deeper he searched for an answer. In the 1977 semifinal against Gerulaitis, the 1977 final against Connors, the 1979 final against Roscoe Tanner, the 1980 final against McEnroe, the 1981 semis against Connors, again and again he was pushed to five sets, bullied, battered, but he would not succumb.

Borg the baseliner dominating on the serve-and-volleyer's paradise was mesmerising. But then a lot of things about Borg were mesmerising. The two-handed exotic backhand, the resting heart rate of 35 beats a minute, the face that showed nothing, though it hardly meant he felt nothing. He felt he was doomed in the 1980 final, which he won, and was in charge in the 1981 final, which he lost. Could you tell?

Later on, after him, men like Lendl, Wilander, Sampras, who played with a similar impassivity, would be derided as boring, but Borg never was on grass. When they said "ice in the veins" it was with a shudder, of awe, and delight.

Girls found him so becoming, in his teenage years, that an invasion of centre court in pursuit of him resulted in a letter being sent to girls' schools asking for better behaviour from visiting students.

Borg's cool was also a counterpoint to the tempestuousness of McEnroe and Connors, a gentleman among bandits, a man whose Kipling-esque ability to meet triumph and disaster with equanimity earned him the affection of the English. To their calm, quiet cathedral had come this calm, contained man. Perhaps Bjorn Borg was born to play and win at Wimbledon.