Never before has Bjorn Borg seemed as free-spirited as he has in the recent past. For a man who was so rigidly self-controlled at the pinnacle of his career in the 1970s – folklore has it that he wouldn’t shave for the two full weeks during Wimbledon – watching him captain Team Europe in the Laver Cup, travel the world, coach on-court and give interviews is a pleasant surprise.
On Tuesday, at The Leela Palace here, Borg was as relaxed and uninhibited, sporting casual cotton shorts and a navy blue shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbow.
With Vijay Amritraj, his friend of 50 years and a speaker-par-excellence, by his side, Borg reminisced about his playing days, the great rivalry with John McEnroe and the decision to walk away from the game at 26.
“Back then I was a very famous person,” Borg said. “At hotels, restaurants, wherever I went, there were always hundreds of people. At the beginning of your career, you will love that. But after some years, you would want some private life. That’s why I stepped away. If like [Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal I had more security, I may have played for more years.”
While Borg’s battle was with the outside world – in Amritraj’s words, Borg was ‘as popular as the Beatles and more popular than ABBA’ – McEnroe’s was with the Swede. For the Americans, Borg was the gold standard and when that measuring stick disappeared suddenly, McEnroe was like fish out of water.
“After I stepped away, we played an exhibition in Tokyo,” Borg recalled. “He [McEnroe] came to me and said ‘you cannot stop playing’. I asked ‘why not’. He said ‘because I need you there’. He liked to keep pushing me. He enjoyed it and that was very important to him.
“We became very close after the 1980 Wimbledon final. Before that, as everyone knows, he was a bit crazy on the court and expressed his feelings more. But in that particular match, he didn’t say a word. He got so much respect from people all over because that was a different side of him. It was not only great for us, but for tennis. We did something really big for the sport.”
For Amritraj, it was Borg’s comeback in that 1980 final, after losing the fourth-set tiebreaker 16-18, that stands out to this day.
“How do you recover after losing seven match points in the fourth set and then pull yourself together mentally? That’s the greatness of our sport. It has taught us that we are capable of more than what we think. It pushes you to the brink, throws you over the precipice and brings you back again. If you are able to live through that, you become a better person.”
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