Borg and Agassi and miracles on grass

TWO performances. Sixteen years apart yet linked by an umbilical cord of audacity.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Bjorn Borg proved that the mystery of Wimbledon grass could be unravelled through a sustained baseline interrogation. — Pic. TONY DUFFY/GETTY IMAGES-

TWO performances. Sixteen years apart yet linked by an umbilical cord of audacity. Two men. With nothing in common yet joined closer at the hip than Siamese twins. Two summers. When we were reminded that form and style and the draw meant little in front of the sheer effrontery of genius.

In 1976, a young man with flowing blond hair, dressed in pristine white, his game like his manner a study in calculated cool, decided that the mystery of grass could be unravelled through a sustained baseline interrogation, that consistency could blunt aggression, that Wimbledon could be seized without a stern serve or a sublime volley. It was akin to embarking on an ascent of Everest without a pickaxe.

He was a fellow of some modesty, yet for a fellow not given to fuss he was prone to create it. Once a young woman skittered across centre court in pursuit of this zen-like, blond God, and up in the commentary box Dan Maskell was almost apoplectic. "This is sacrilege", he exclaimed, "she's wearing high heels".

Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1992, it was deja vu. Young girlish screams once again rent the air as a fellow with flowing blonde locks (well, if that was the colour of the day), dressed in pristine white, yet in manner all sinner to his saintly predecessor, prepared to convince us, again, that Wimbledon could be won without treading the fore-court.

Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi's invasion, and occupation, of SW19, was almost without precedence or parallel, it seemed not so much to fly in the face of tennis convention but slap it; it was a tactical improbability, a stylistic no-no, a defiance of a century or so of stubborn tradition. They were like ballet dancers producing a sublime Swan Lake in a bog.

Their feats were comparable, yet these were men as alike as they were dissimilar. Borg loved Wimbledon, he called it "a celebration more than anything else". A young Agassi found celebration in calling Wimbledon's chairman a "bozo". Borg quietly did his apprenticeship on grass, Agassi loudly disdained it and refused to show up for three years.

Borg was a man of unchanged method, who said his practice routine was "virtually identical" every year; Agassi appeared more instinctive, a man who one day might shave his chest, the next day his head. Both had serves that were effective but not built to threaten, though Borg's was underrated. As he wrote in his autobiography, My Life and Game, it was "difficult to pick" for he could go down the line or wide off the same toss.

Borg writes he was forced to serve and volley in the first week, or at least produce his version of it, though in the second week, when the worn-down centre court was so "packed and solid that it played very much like clay," his favourite surface, he was back in his element. Agassi was less adventurous in seeking the net, or at least memory tells me that.

Yet, the Swede was closer in spirit to the American than has been suspected; only his mutiny was quieter, related more to technique than manner. If we saw him as a player of convention, practitioner of some old virtue, he denies it: "I have broken every rule recommended by instruction books over the past 50 years." He was, like Agassi, in his own way, a rebel.

But it is here, at this point of similarity, that their parts begin to sharply diverge.

Some powerful compensation was required for the absence of obvious grass court weapons, and it came in the form of a return of serve. Both men were measured, exact, reliable, but their method was fascinatingly dissimilar.

Their philosophies, if we can be so glib, were reflective of their cultures. Borg's approach was monkish: "My game is based on patience. Not attack". Agassi, who saw himself as some neon warrior, was quite the reverse. In the return, this was most evident.

Borg says he positioned himself "10 feet behind the baseline" (when returning serve) and "when Roscoe Tanner is serving I retreat even further back." The reason? "I want to get the longest look possible at a hard serve".

He seemed, at least then, to reserve disdain for those who stood closer, writing: "To me standing at the baseline to receive serve is for show-offs... Why do receivers continue to stand so close in? Mostly, because it's macho to face a cannonball next to the barrel, like the gladiators in the olden days chasing each other's axes or swords at close range."

He could have been describing Agassi.

The American, stood on, just behind, or even inside, the baseline, shutting off the angle, using the power of the server to generate even more pace. He relished taking the initiative, and if like Borg he made his opponent play more balls, he forced errors more through aggression.

It brings us to a point of some contention, a view possibly even sacrilegious, but still worth asking: was Agassi's feat even more incomprehensible than Borg's?

Borg's five straight titles, six straight finals, even now, dazzles the mind. It stands as a sporting absurdity, a feat of such uniqueness than even Pete Sampras has failed to replicate it.

But Borg exploited beautifully a window of opportunity, and as the sublime Rex Bellamy once put it, "he emerged when the great days of serve-and-volley exponents such as Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Stan Smith were over and McEnroe had yet to happen. Pre-McEnroe the best grass court expert Borg had to beat was Roscoe Tanner, who was just short of the highest class."

Agassi's winning of a singular title was in itself outrageous, for he was confronted by a racket revolution, faced with an enemy raised on computer diets, their bodies forged by fitness gurus, their musculature heralding the advent of a new, sleek, powerful generation.

It was challenging enough that, unlike now in the time of Hewitt, formidable practitioners of the volley littered the draw; furthermore, perhaps never in the game's history had the serve been a weapon of such accelerated destruction, especially on grass. As vital to this lopsided equation was Agassi himself, at 22 still a mixed-up boy playing an adult, his fitness suspect, his mind often a mess of distraction.

Yet, in succession, in his last three matches in 1992, he would ward off Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisevic.

Of course, like with Borg, we can say Agassi was fortunate. That Becker was fading, that McEnroe was slower than treacle, that Ivanisevic was then not much more than a latter-day Tanner. Still, the American's patience (wait for the opportunity, he told himself), his flaming mix of pace and precision, his strength perhaps drawn from a boxer father in counter-punching, was something to behold.

Perhaps Borg was the better man, but not by much. It does not matter, anyway, for both men are stored in the memory, reminders of a different time, a different game, and of summers the like of which we may never see again.