AS A RULE old tennis players neither die nor fade away. Like guests who don't want to leave a rollicking party, they hang around, serving as commentators, commercial pitchmen, headliners on the Legends circuit or Davis Cup captains--or in John McEnroe's case, all of the above. But Bjorn Borg's absence from the tennis firmament is hardly surprising. Even at the height of his significant powers you'd have been hard-pressed to find an athlete less interested in the trappings of celebrity. The Swede was so spartan that he abstained from sex during tournaments, lest it affect his stamina.
With his wispy beard, heavily topspun strokes and unshakable calm, Borg was a top player from the mid-1970s to '81. In the '80 Wimbledon singles final he defeated McEnroe in an epic three-hour, 53-minute five-setter that many consider to be the most gripping match ever played. That was the third straight year in which Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon, a feat no male player has replicated a single time since.
McEnroe, the outspoken, combustible lefthander, was the perfect foil for Borg. But if the rivalry energized McEnroe, it seemed to intimidate Borg. He recoiled when his supremacy was challenged. Borg fell to McEnroe in the '81 Wimbledon final and, in an oddly hollow performance, in the U.S. Open final two months later. Rather than wait for the trophy presentation, he caught a flight home without so much as changing out of his tennis clothes. He was 25 and would never play another Grand Slam match. Before he turned 27, he had officially retired.
In the ensuing years Borg showed little of the discipline that had defined his tennis career. He divorced his wife, sired a child with a teenage girlfriend, married and divorced an Italian pop singer, declared bankruptcy and made an ill-fated comeback at 34.
July 10, 2005
Now 49, he lives outside Stockholm, teaches top Swedish juniors and has a clothing line. He married again in 2002 and became a father for the second time the following year. "The guy looks great," McEnroe says, "like he still does 500 sit-ups and push-ups a day." --L.J.W.