He could, perhaps, be the last of the gentleman Swedes. Articulate, gentle and charming, Jonas Bjorkman is the best ambassador sport can have. A proficient singles and doubles player with 42 titles overall, Bjorkman is one of the very few players who has been able to juggle singles and doubles quite successfully for almost a decade now. In fact, the Swede is one of the few players, who during their career have been ranked in the top 10 in both singles and doubles.
An admirer of Yannick Noah and Mats Wilander, Bjorkman had a reasonably good partnership with Jan Apell and Nicklas Kulti. But it was with the Australian Todd Woodbridge that the Swede shot into the limelight.
The pair won five Grand Slam titles in the last four years. It is possible that the two would not pair again. Woodbridge said in a recent interview to the Australian press that everybody knew of Bjorkman's decision (to find a new partner) even before he did.
"It gives you the real fire in the belly to go out there and I guess to prove to Jonas that he made the wrong choice," Woodbridge was quoted as saying. The Swede, true to his nature, refused to be caught in the controversy.
All he said was "I'd like to talk to Todd personally. I don't want to talk to Todd through the press."
On his first visit to the city for the ATP-Chennai Open tennis championship, Bjorkman gave a fine exhibition in doubles play with Mahesh Bhupathi with soft hands and quick reflexes at the net, Bjorkman stamped his class during the tournament, even though the pair lost in the final.
One of the first players who announced that he would donate his entire prize money to the tsunami victims, Bjorkman also took the lead in promoting the cause among the players. Currently ranked No. 3 in doubles and No. 70 in singles, Bjorkman spoke to Sportstar about his split with Woodbridge, his future plans and sounded a warning about the way tennis is marketed now.
"Golf and other sports have been running away from us," he said. "The ATP needs to listen to player's views a lot more."
Question: This is your first visit to Chennai. What made you come to this city when there are other tournaments offering higher prize money?
Answer: A lot of help came from Mahesh (Bhupathi). We knew each other for a long time. Two-three years ago, we started to play and began to enjoy each other's company. He's a great person. We had a lot of fun together. We won in Bastad (Sweden) and lost a final in Moscow. He asked me if I could come over (to Chennai) and then try to play in India and I felt it was a good time for me to visit India. It's been a long time since last time (he played in the Indian Open in New Delhi in 1996). I think Mahesh was helping a lot and I was curious to come as I had heard a lot of good things about the tournament. I was ready to come and see what it is like.
The prize money was reduced this time, was that on your mind when you came here?
I read them in the papers. It wouldn't have affected me. I normally put the priority where I think I am going to play my best tennis. I've been to Doha and Adelaide many times. I played well there but never played as well as I was hoping. And I felt it was a nice challenge to come to India, play in Chennai and hopefully get my motivation and have a great start to 2005.
You have had a fine relationship with Woodbridge, winning five Grand Slams together. What is the secret of being a good doubles pair?
The key to success is to have a good combination. The Woodies (Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde) were a sensational doubles team. They broke every record there is possibly to break. Both of them were technically very good and played smart. Me and Todd too were a great doubles pair. He (Woodbridge) was the tactical guy and I was more; hitting the ball a lit bit harder. Always pumped and positive on the court. When he got upset, I was there to push him and get him back to momentum. And at the same time, when I was losing, he was telling me a few things, tactically what we should change and stuff like that. And I think that's the combination you need. It's always good to have one hard-hitter and one little softer.
Technically Todd's volley is superb. Every Australian knows how to volley. And they can hit their volleys with great technique and power. I supplemented with good hands, was very fast on court and was a good athlete and I did a lot of work on the court. That's why I think we did well. My return is my strengths in doubles and I normally don't miss too many returns and that puts a lot of pressure on the opponents. And I try to mix it up with pace and that creates chances for my partner.
Leander and Mahesh were perfect example. Leander is the fire in the team; he has quick hands and creative shots. Mahesh is the more solid one, hitting hard and serving hard. If two guys are not serving well, it is tough to do well. So you need to find that combination.
Why do pairs split after success? Take the example of Leander-Mahesh, there are a lot of other examples. In your playing experience, you have seen a lot of players split. Is there a common link as to why pairs decide to part ways?
I think it's probably different in each partnership. Sometimes, you need a new challenge. You want to feel it's time to do something different. You are always trying to learn from each other, same with cultures. You can have a culture for five years, and after that the coach and the player feel 'I am not learning anything from you'. And at one stage, success stops. You listen to a coach, and after some time the players feel 'you have not improved my game' and the coach feels that 'I have not been able to improve the players game'. It's nothing wrong to feel that way, it's normal.
You can't generalise as there is no one reason, it's different each time it (split) happens. When Roger Federer split with Peter Lundgren everyone thought "Lundgren's perfect" and Federer proved that for him it was the right decision. He wanted to do in his own way. So, it's more to do with instincts, you got to follow your instincts.
You have decided to play with a new partner this year, cutting your successful partnership with Woodbridge. Woodbridge told the Australian press that you did not inform him beforehand that you were going to play with a different partner. What do you have to say?
Yeah, but I did inform him. We were talking, and there's always a time you are disappointed and you say something but may be did not mean in certain ways. The media is very good to build something up. That's their job and we all got different jobs. The media in Australia is very tough. The English press is probably the worst, but after that Australia (laughs).
The Australians can sometimes be tough on their own tennis players. May be, because they have been so successful for so many years and they have high expectations. Whatever Todd said, may be the press accelerated it and made it a bit too much. I am not putting too much into that. When I speak to Todd, that's when I know what is true.
If I have something to say to Todd in six months time, I'm not going tell him through the press. I am going to call him or tell him personally. When you are 32, it makes no sense to go to the press. Obviously, I like him to call me instead. At the same time, I am too old to put so much energy to stuff like this.
You will be playing the Grand Slams with Belarusian Max Mirnyi in the whole of 2005. What are your expectations?
I am hoping to continue to win the big tournaments, that's my biggest goal. I never won the French Open (another big goal for me). Of course, I like to win all four Grand Slams. I am looking forward to play with Max, it's going to be a new challenge, and I hope to do well. I had a good 2003 in singles where I went up to 30 in the rankings but fell down to 70. I was not happy about that. My game is good enough to be in the top 30 in singles. I am keen to fight with the younger ones and hope to have a successful 2005.
You have been a successful singles player, ranked as high as four in 1997, and what made you turn towards doubles? You thought that you had had enough of singles when you began playing doubles?
When I have enough of singles, I'll probably have enough of doubles as well. It would be very hard for me to just play doubles. I can, maybe, do it for one extra year. To just travel as a doubles player only would be very hard. I feel that I have another two good years totally as a player. Hopefully I can live up to that.
There has been a lot of talk that doubles is not getting enough attention. Now a lot more singles players have started playing doubles. Do you think this has raised its profile? How do you visualise doubles in the future?
There has not been enough credit to doubles. The problem is that for the last five to seven years and even till the last two years, we did not have too many singles players playing doubles. Now that we have changed the rules, we have got a lot more singles players. As you could see last year's winner (2003 Tata Open), Rafael Nadal and Tommy Robredo won the doubles. I think we have a perfect situation for doubles. There is a lot more professionalism in doubles. I think the competition is greater than ever. Hopefully with that we can create more TV time and get more publicity.
You have been the President of the ATP Players' Council before. Rainer Schuettler, the current President, in an interview with The Hindu recently said that tennis has not been marketed well. Do you agree with him?
I do. Golf and other sports have been running away from us. We need to have the players' voice a lot stronger. What the players think has to be listened to a lot more. Right now, they are not listening to us enough. The tournament officials are not listening to us enough.
( This interview has been published on Sportstar in 2005 )
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