In 1976 Bjorn Borg was 20, narrow, bony, his gentle, blank face swallowed up in hair—a golden child. By then he had fashioned an impenetrable defensive ground game, one not treated in the instruction books. He already had the speed and that blazing, special spin and was well on his way to maturing physically and developing his serve, his staying power, his implacability. But always he had had desire and discipline: He would practice, practice, practice. That's what he did the best of all players—and then did again and again and still does. More than anything, this sets him apart. Borg's appetite for the hard labor of the practice court is truly supreme. It, perhaps as much as his natural talent, has made possible one of the most remarkable sporting feats of the age.
Transferring to the damp, slippery grass of Wimbledon after the more familiar hot red clay of the preceding tournament, the French Open, had been for Borg in his teens what a dangerous stroll down the lane following a romp in the bramblebush was for B'rer Rabbit. By 1976 he understood the differences in footing, timing and bounce. He wanted Wimbledon so badly. He had learned, worked, practiced, built the monster first serve under a cloak of secrecy, and wonder of wonders, he won the championship without the loss of a set. Now he has won the tournament five straight times. Last week Borg arrived in England to begin the quest for Wimbledon No. 6.
MONDAY, JUNE 8: After a flight from Paris, Borg arrives at the Sheraton-Park Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge at about 3 p.m. He is accompanied by his wife, Mariana, and his mentor, Lennart Bergelin. To each other, the three are known as Scumpule (darling in Romanian, Mariana's native tongue), Scumpo (the feminine derivative) and Laban (monkey or clown in Swedish).
The night before, on the Champs-Elysèes, the celebration had lasted till daybreak. On Sunday Borg had won his sixth French Open while his friends, members of the rock group Fleetwood Mac and actor Lee Majors, watched from his private box. Later Majors took the group on the town, to Castel's and Elysèes Matignon, where an avid fan made advances to Borg. The fan was male. Scumpo was concerned about Scumpule until Ilie Nastase's bodyguard, Bambino, interceded. "All he wanted were some kisses," said Majors to Borg with a smile.
June 21, 1981
In London the Borgs and Bergelin take adjoining suites on the 10th floor overlooking the waters of the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The view is spectacular. Harrod's is nearby. The Moody Blues are at the Royal Albert Hall down the road. (Borg is a rock fan.) All the joys and sights of London are spread before him. But, except for tennis and an occasional foray on behalf of P.R., Borg won't leave his room—"Room service is great," he says—much less the hotel, for a solid month.
This will be Borg's 10th Wimbledon. He knows London's roundabouts, but he doesn't exactly know London. Within 48 hours of his arrival, riding past a two-block-long Georgian building, he will look out the window of his car and, amazed, say, "What is that?" It will be the British Museum.
The hotel is a novel experience, too. Borg stayed at the Park Lane in his first title year, but for the last four Wimbledons he moved to the Holiday Inn at Swiss Cottage, away from the bustle, in northwest London. It was quiet, close to the practice courts. Room service was great there, too. This year the Borg "people"—i.e., Mark McCormack's International Management Group—asked for a reduced rate. Translation: free. After all, it's tougher than ever getting by on two million a week. Holiday Inn said this was no holiday.
Bergelin, the mother hen, fretting, is unhappy about the move, but Borg thinks it's O.K. He will leave for practice in the morning before the stewardesses check in and come back before the Arab sheikhs check out. Nobody else bothers him. If the lobby is crowded, he will stay on the elevator to the basement garage.
TUESDAY, JUNE 9: This will be Borg's second and last day without tennis until he finishes playing at Wimbledon. He is taken two hours out of London to Silverstone, the Formula I racetrack, where he shakes hands with Saab dealers and test-drives a new model of the car, which is one of his principal endorsements. "I don't go fast," he says.
Mariana Borg says of Bergelin, "He is Bjorn's home. He is Sweden." Bergelin, now more adviser, secretary, masseur and compatriot than coach, arranges Borg's schedule in England, but always at the whim of the weather. It's another soggy spring in London. Bergelin defines Borg's priorities: "I keep Bjorn's head clear." Bergelin's phone conversation with a journalist defines what he means by clear.
"Ya, dat's me."
"I wonder if I might speak with Bjorn?"
"No, no. He doesn't want to talk to anybody or see anybody or do anyting but tennis. He tell me dat."
"Could I just watch practice one day?"
"No, no. He don't want anyting but tennis. He tell me dat."
"How about if I just hang around and talk to you?"
"No, no. He don't want anyting but tennis. He tell me dat."
"How about if I jump in the Serpentine and drown?"
"No, no. He don't want anyting but tennis. He tell me dat."
Later, in the lobby, the same reporter approaches Borg with his requests. "For sure, no problem," Borg says. Honest. Borg told the journalist dat.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10: Superstition envelops the Borg family like the shroud of a Swedish winter. In 1979 Borg's father, Rune, and his 72-year-old grandfather, Martin Andersson, were fishing off their private island of Kattilo while listening to a radio broadcast of the French final between Borg and Victor Pecci. After Borg's grandfather spit once, simultaneous with a Borg point, he continued to spit into the sea for the duration of the match and arrived home with a sore throat. Borg won in four sets.
That same year at Wimbledon, Borg's mother, Margarethe, eating candy for good luck in the competitors' stand, spit out the sweet when Borg reached triple match point in the final against Roscoe Tanner. When Tanner rallied to deuce, Margarethe fetched the candy off the grimy floor and put it back into her mouth. Borg won.
The elder Borgs go to the French only in even years, to Wimbledon only in odd ones—purely out of superstition. Likewise, the habits of their son. Borg has his rackets strung by only one man, Mats Laftman, in Stockholm. (During the two weeks of Paris this year Borg broke strings in 52 rackets. "My new record," he says.) Before each match Borg must have his tennis bag packed just so. He must have his 10 rackets lined up in descending order of "ping"—or tightness of tension on the strings. Mariana calls Borg's testing system the night before a match "a harpsichord recital—the music of the spheres." He must have a car with a stereo radio and must take the same road over the Hammersmith Bridge to Wimbledon. He must sleep 10 hours nightly, preferably with one of his hands under his head. "For relaxation," he says. "A productive stereotype must not be changed." The beard starts exactly four days before the All-England Championships. Then there's the Cumberland Club.
Guillermo Vilas brought Borg to the small, 1,000-member professional men's club in Hampstead in 1976. There Borg sparred with Vilas and Adriano Panatta and toiled two hours a day on his serve. He shifted his stance to correct an errant toss, the change enabling him to hit the ball out front. Slowly he gained rhythm, power, accuracy. And he won. "It is so private here," Borg says. "You pass the club and you can't see they even have courts. This is so good."
The resident stewards have retired since that magical beginning, but many of the reliables remain: Bill Blake, the club pro; Pepe, the groundsman; Peggy Kay, the nice woman who fixes Borg's lunch. Often Bergelin has words with Pepe over the playability of the constantly rained-on grass. But seldom does Borg's menu change: meats, salad, bread, coffee and a horrible drink concocted of black-currant syrup and carbonated lemonade. Borg swigs the stuff by the quart. "It helps my backhand," he says, grinning.
The workout is long and exhausting. Borg practices with Bergelin for five hours. The champion rallies, serves and volleys, gets accustomed to the surface. The session is interrupted only by two hours for rest and lunch. Mariana has a stomach virus and leaves. Bergelin, 56, a three-time quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, rips apart two nasty blisters on his racket hand. It is Bergelin's birthday. "Blisters and champagne," says Borg.
THURSDAY, JUNE 11: An overnight deluge has left the Cumberland courts under water and Bergelin out of sorts. It is always a scramble to get court time in London. During storm tides on the Thames everyone hustles indoors to the Vanderbilt Club in central London. The Vanderbilt is the only place Borg is likely to see any of his tour brethren. He practices twice here today.
Most players strike a delicate balance in the fortnight before Wimbledon, playing a tournament one week and practicing the other. John McEnroe, for instance, will win Queens on Sunday for the third year in a row. Borg gets his competitive edge by playing—and winning—all those matches in Paris. What he needs in London, then, isn't tests but time.
All official entrants are allowed to practice three days at Wimbledon. Former champions are welcomed any day. But everyone's playing time is limited, almost nonexistent in fact. And nobody is permitted on the Centre and No. 1 courts where Borg plays all his matches. So, the Holder makes only a couple of token practice appearances before the opening of the tournament.
The hotel elevator door opens and a long-haired fellow inside the car points at another long-hair standing outside it. "Say, aren't you Veyetus Jere-you-teyelus." It is Borg, inside the car, joking.
"I used to be," says Gerulaitis.
In 1977 these two quickalikes and the best of friends contested a Wimbledon semifinal that for sustained drama and brilliant shotmaking over five sets may have been the best match ever played at the All-England Club. Gerulaitis, who's 0-17 against Borg, hasn't come close since. Nonetheless, for the fourth straight year the two are practicing together. This time Gerulaitis, having gone through several coaches while in a prolonged slump, has brought along the venerated transplanted Aussie coach, Harry Hopman. "The beauty of these boys' workouts is that they get so much match play in," says Hop. "Other people might have different aims or goals when they practice, but Vitas is confident enough to go for the lines and battle just like in a tournament. This is exactly what Bjorn needs. There is a sense of urgency in their games."
The personalities of the two players couldn't be more different, and that's the attraction. They draw from each other things that they can't provide for themselves. Gerulaitis, the disco kid, begs for some of the control and discipline Borg symbolizes. In turn, Gerulaitis seems to keep Borg loose, opens him up to the social glitter and often elicits the high-pitched, soprano Borg giggle that comes as such a shock to anyone vaguely familiar with his tedious public stoicism.
"This Oakland guy, Billy Martin, he is always getting in trouble," Borg says.
"So, anyway, listen, the guy bumps umpires and, listen, throws dirt and...." Gerulaitis raps on in his staccato narrative. "So, listen, just think what would happen to us if we threw dirt on a guy?"
The Borg giggle goes on and on.
FRIDAY, JUNE 12: The Bionic Man returns. Lee Majors—whiskers, shades, snakeskin boots, six million dollar tan—shows up for Borg's first day of practice with Gerulaitis under Wimbledon conditions. Wet-on-green. "I'm third seed in this crowd," Majors says.
In a blue Saab, Bergelin, driving, operates the window like a robot: shut when moving, down at stoplights. "He must not take the breeze," Bergelin says of Borg.
Stevie Nicks wails Rhiannon from the tape cassette. "Too loud," Bergelin says.
"You get bonus points if you hit that one," Borg says as Bergelin just misses separating a fat lady from her bike.
Because Cumberland is again soaked, Bergelin has arranged practice at the Lensbury Club, an enormous athletic facility in southwest London. There are parrots in the lounge, an aquarium in the sitting room, fountains on the back lawn.
In the cold, misty morning, hardly anyone notices as Borg and Gerulaitis warm up on one of the four grass courts far across the cricket pitch from the massive clubhouse. The workout seldom varies. A half hour of rallying, tentative, to get the feel of the turf. A couple of hours of serious, tough games and sets. Pause for lunch and more black-currant lemonade. Ugh! Then another short warmup and another two hours of points.
Borg's behavior during his private practice regimen is virtually the same as it is at tournaments in front of millions. Billy Martin—the tennis player, not the Oakland guy—has said that on the island, Kattilo, Borg smashes rackets, screams and then breaks up laughing during practice. At Lensbury his single-minded concentration is interrupted only by an occasional giggle. And, oh, how he works. Running for every ball. Crashing into the fence. Acknowledging fine shots from either side of the net with the solitary word "beauty." Borg pronounces it in three syllables, accent middle: be-YOU-tee.
Gerulaitis scores a let-cord winner. Borg turns his back, drops his warmup pants and sticks out his rear end. "Now you know what it feels like when you do that four times a game," Gerulaitis yells.
The eye contact between the two is warm and mirthful, the sportsmanship sincere. Each is trying to beat the other's brains out. Gerulaitis struggles mightily. He wins 12 of the first 16 points in the morning session and serves for the set at 5-3, but Borg fights him off and breaks. In a marathon, no-tiebreaker encounter Gerulaitis earns a set point in the 14th game, two more in the 16th, another in the 18th. Just as if it were the real thing, Borg refuses to give in.
From back at the fence Borg races for Gerulaitis' tricky tap overhead and converts it into a winner. "Bitch," says Borg, smiling at his friend. Laboriously he repeats and repeats his approach-and-volley technique. Out of position, Borg wheels and volleys into the open court with his left hand. "I've seen it all today," Gerulaitis says, chuckling helplessly. "You're moving so amazing."
"Yeah, I'm happy," Borg says.
Finally, Borg breaks to lead 10-9, even though he is behind in points, 54-57. The competition has pushed, pulled and driven him to the heights. And it's only his second day on the grass. He will not be beaten. The champion winds up and fires. One...two...three aces. "Not bad, not bad," Bergelin chirps. "Now how about the fourth?" Borg unloads again, but this time Gerulaitis gets his racket on the ball. The weak return finds Borg on the attack. He closes. The point and set are his. Gerulaitis slams a ball to the backstop. He has lost once more. Borg's thin smile breaks the tension.
Afterward, the players kibitz over their plans that evening. Gerulaitis will party with Majors. Borg will return to the hotel, to room service and to gin rummy with Mariana, his beloved Scumpo.
In the Lensbury Club parking lot, Borg gathers his belongings, poses for pictures and signs autographs for neighborhood children. He starts to ride away. Bergelin has almost driven out of the driveway when Borg suddenly orders the car stopped. He has noticed one little girl standing awestruck, disconsolate. He tells Bergelin to back up. Borg rolls down the window and asks the girl if he missed her. He signs her book. She's speechless.
"So obliged," her father says.
"Don't mention it," Borg says.
Only then does the car speed off, the window rolling up as it goes. He is such a be-YOU-tee, this Bjorn Borg. And the Wimbledon champion must not take the breeze.