How born-again Borg exorcised his demons

Three of the four men’s semi-finalists were going in search of records. Roger Federer was trying to emulate Bjorn Borg’s five consecutive victories, Rafael Nadal was continuing his attempt to become the first player since Borg to win the French and Wimbledon in the same year, and Novak Djokovic was hoping to steer Serbia to the unique and prestigious Eurovision Song Contest and Wimbledon men’s singles double.

Which was something Sweden might have achieved had Abba, to their eternal shame, not gone all flaky and declined to compete again at the highest level.

Watching Federer’s match was Borg, who was making only his second visit to Wimbledon since he lost to John McEnroe in the 1981 final. That defeat was followed by another to McEnroe in the US Open final, the two combining to send him into early retirement at 26. However hard he practised, he knew he could never beat the instinctive, impish genius.

Borg was back and, at 51, looking the same as he ever did. A pound, perhaps two, heavier, and with those hooded eyes that appear to have to seen it all and then some more.

Instantly, one remembered what an iconic figure Borg had been. He was the Arnold Palmer of tennis, a man whose image sold the sport and ensured the top tennis players would lead Monte Carlo lives. The name Borg resonated round the world. The hair and the glare and the Donnayed double-backhand. The fall to his knees in prayer as he gave thanks for winning another Wimbledon title. It was a silent performance that required no translation and was understood by everyone.

Now Federer probably would surpass his achievement. “He’s such a complete player,” says Borg, “so professional in what he is doing. He has both feet on the ground and no weaknesses. If he stays away from injuries and still has the motivation, he will be the greatest player ever. Records are made to be broken and it couldn’t happen to a nicer player. Maybe he can win six, seven or eight times.” In one sense, successive victories become easier each time. “If you are the number-one player,” says Borg, “you have a little bit of an advantage when you walk on court because the players you’re playing know they have to play your best game and maybe that will not be enough.”

In another sense, they become progressively harder, for each one can diminish your desire. “I think the motivation is the key thing for Roger,” says Borg. “We understand each other very well. It’s a matter of finding your own way, which makes you comfortable with the world and your life playing tennis, so you don’t lose your motivation. When I was playing tennis it was very difficult to do the other things in life. And you come to a point when it is difficult to have a normal life.” It was at this point that Borg decided to walk away. “It’s a matter of waking up and thinking, “I’m getting a little bit tired of this game”, he now says. His early departure serves as both warning and example. “A lot of players understood what I went through. I was still very young. It could happen to anyone. And I was the first one it happened to and maybe a lot of players think, ‘I don’t want it to happen to me’ and ask, ‘Why did this happen?’”

Once it had happened, Borg — who has admitted to ‘making mistakes’ in his past — embarked on a lifestyle perhaps best summed up by his claim ‘the world is my sauna’. The luridness of this is depicted by Lars Skarke in Bjorn Borg: Winner Loses All. A book written by a former business partner and spurned friend, it is, be warned, distinctly partial.

This is a short passage: ‘Christer (Gustafsson – “Bjorn’s playmate”) told me how he had rubbed his eyes in disbelief as he once watched Bjorn weeping and sobbing naked in the corner of a room. Tennis fans would barely have recognised him as he writhed with his hands crudely tied behind his back. Above him stood a 6ft-tall woman, dressed in black leather peep-hole bra, pants and thigh-high leather boots, brandishing a thick leather belt.

“You are guilty and now I am going to punish you,” she screamed at him as the belt came lashing down on his bare buttocks.’

At this point you expect someone to appear and ask: ‘Bjorn, where did it all go wrong?’ Instead, the text continues with the arguably lame ‘Life had changed dramatically since the early days.’ Whatever Bjorn did next he certainly appears to have gone in search of a missed youth, trying to claw back all those years he spent practising. When sportsmen retire young they need to find an outlet for the competitive spirit that has made them great. Borg could not only out-rally anyone, but he could out-drink them, too. He was a good friend of Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe — a mutual friend — says of Borg’s retirement:

‘I think the life Vitas was leading — partying, women — might have had something to do with it. It must have seemed attractive because his life had been so regimented.’

For a decade Borg had lived a life straitened by the lines of a tennis court and the temptation to go off the rails must have been irresistible. There were busted marriages and businesses, but he has come through it all.

He told me: “I’m happily married. I have a great family. We live outside Stockholm. The clothing company is doing very well. We have a quiet life with the kids. I’m happier than I’ve been for many, many years.”

Happy enough to play tennis again, joining up with old friend and foe McEnroe on the Black Rock Tour of Champions. Tennis was never the problem: it was being the first people’s champion he found hard to handle.

Will Buckley © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007