It's Nice Work If You Qualify For It

And make the field Bjorn Borg did at home in sumptuous Monte Carlo, although victory eluded him in his first tournament since last fall
April 19, 1982

Well he's not dead. He's not even ill or infirm. No, and he hasn't grown nails nine inches long, painted himself with polka dots or metamorphosed into some shivering, babbling old punk troll. When Bjorn Borg took some time off the other day from playing hockey, selling Saabs and rolling in dough, where should he turn up but right at home on the French Riviera. Same young Bjorny, too, except for a couple of things. At the Monte Carlo Country Club Borg was laughing and joking and relaxing and whistling while he, uh, worked. Whistling. What's even more amazing is that he lost a tennis match and the Mediterranean sky, as clear and cerulean and glorious for as far as the mortal eye could see, did not fall. Did not dare. Some things transcend Borg's losing. "I've played so many years," he said amid the uproar, "I can take a loss."

That was it, of course. Borg, still only 25, has played so many years, won so many years, that when he took off a measly five months from the tour, it seemed an eternity. And when he came back, sauntering in the same bowlegged fashion, spiffed out in the same Filas and even wielding his racket the same way, he not only got beat but was thoroughly blasted into the copper clay of Monaco by Yannick Noah, the Frenchman from the Cameroons, 6-1, 6-2. There was doom in the salt air, and mourning. Directly, a French phrase came to French lips: La mer s'est élevée avec les pleurs (The sea has risen with tears).

It's difficult to fathom just how enormous a public figure Borg is in Europe. The aura is of a Kennedy in Hyannis, a McCartney in Liverpool, a Mailer in Elaine's—we're talking long-ball hitter here. Upon Borg's return to the circuit, he was greeted with an outpouring of media attention usually reserved for assassinations or wars or Princess Caroline's latest squeeze. Alone or with his wife, Mariana, Borg graced the covers of three of France's national weeklies. A cadre of British journalists flew across the Channel to wait on his every word. Scores of press and paparazzi from every nook of the continent descended on Monaco for the occasion. Even the vast array of barefoot contessas gathered in all their splendor—and on the beach in all their altogether—for this traditional opening of the spring social season on the C√¥te d'Azur were as street hags in the wake of Le Grand Retour of Borg. And all this over a qualifier.

The controversy surrounding Borg's having to qualify for his own club tournament was nearly as misguided as the sorrow following his inevitable defeat. First, after three months of not touching a racket, followed by two months of practice—albeit tough, regimented sessions at his homes in Sweden and France under the command of mentor-hen Lennart Bergelin—Borg wasn't about to win the Monte Carlo Open. Not against such a star-studded clay-court field as this one. Borg said so himself afterward. "I did not expect to win or do unbelievably well," he said. "It is too hard, too soon." Fact is, Borg was probably fortunate he didn't make it to the semifinals, where who knows what dire embarrassment may have awaited him. He would have faced Ivan Lendl, who had won 70 of 71 matches and 12 tournaments in the last six months, and he surely would have had his way with Borg. Instead, Lendl beat Noah 6-1, 1-6, 6-1. Then in Sunday's final Guillermo Vilas upset Lendl 6-1, 7-6, 6-3.

Borg's presence in the qualifying—the subject of so much hue and cry among the game's image-mongers—was necessary because of his refusal to comply with Rule 8 in the 1982 Grand Prix guide. It states that a player must commit to playing a minimum of 10 tournaments a year, not counting the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, or be forced to qualify for all tournaments. Claiming he needed his "retirement" months and saying he desired more rest later—translation: time to perform in exhibitions from the Falkland Islands to Timbuktu at wages commensurate with whatever the designated countries' national debts will allow—Borg chose to enter seven tournaments and to petition the Men's International Professional Tennis Council to alter the rule. Forehand crosscourt. The MIPTC refused. Volley deep. Borg said fine, he would just as soon not go through the qualies at the French, which he has won only six times, and at Wimbledon, where he's only a five-time winner. Backhand pass. On the line.

Arthur Ashe, who's a member of the council and helped write the rule, last week agreed it was unfair. He said Borg had the ad. "It's one thing to say if a guy doesn't go the distance with 502 plate appearances, he doesn't qualify for the batting title," Ashe said. "This rule doesn't even let the guy come to bat."

Subsequently, Borg and his seconds pressed this point against the sport's ruling alphabet agencies—the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) having joined the MIPTC in the fray—until last week, when Monte Carlo buzzed with the drone of tennis politicos searching for a compromise, their blazers and school ties and starch ludicrously out of place on the marble terraces overlooking magnificent Cap-Martin. Butch Buchholz, executive director of the ATP, huddled with Borg. Philippe Chatrier, president of the ITF, caucused with Buchholz. Sir Brian Burnett, chairman of the All England Club, jetted in for discussions with Borg, Chatrier and all the rest.

Would Wimbledon flout the Grand Prix rule and permit Borg to enter its draw straightaway? Would Borg break down and enter three more tournaments? (Significantly, by playing through the qualifying rounds of seven tournaments, Borg probably will wind up playing more—matches if not weeks—to play less.) Was all this nonsense?

Borg, standing on principle, wouldn't budge. "I am not helping them save face," he said.

"Bjorn is standing six feet behind the baseline, covering the corners and swatting every ball back," said Buchholz. "That's what made him great."

By this time the sentiment of the touring players, who in a January straw vote had split 50-50 on the question of whether Borg should have to qualify for the majors, had dramatically shifted to his side. "The council treats Borg like they are his parents and he is a 5-year-old," Lendl said. "Bjorn is old enough to know what he should do."

Vilas—as always the poet—said, "The rules were not thinking about this guy, this great champion. Life rules itself; there is balance in life. But this.... We are so sick about this."

Ironically, because of his sabbatical, Borg's qualifying matches at Monaco were more of a benefit to him than a disadvantage. After all, the Monte Carlo Country Club is his home park. Borg's house in Cap Ferrat is only a 20-minute drive away, and his apartment in the foothills of Monte Carlo is even closer. Bjorn Borg's Sportshop is on Avenue Princess Grace, which winds around to the Corniche Inférieure, which leads up to the entrance of the club.

Last week Mariana was in Switzerland, resting after her recent treatment for kidney stones, but there was still a full house: Borg's parents, the Bergelins and Borg's friend, Onni Nordstrum, a former World Hockey Association player who was at center the night last winter in Sweden when Bjorn Borg, right wing, scored four goals for the Malmo Vets against the Malmo Juniors.

For the qualifying and the main draw, Borg settled into a routine: morning workout with Per Hjertquist, another Swedish pro, on the club's upper courts behind the hospitality tents, a quick shower and then get out of Dodge City. No Formula I driver ever negotiated the hairpins of the corniches any more quickly than Borg did while making his getaways down the pastel hills and past the throngs hoping to glimpse him.

"All the strokes are there," Bergelin said, "but not the head. It's his concentration that worries me. All this future [the hassle over qualifying] is in his head." There Bergelin went again, as is his wont, copping a plea before the fact. In truth, Borg was concerned about his serve. He kept double-faulting against Hjertquist, kept jabbering as the balls crashed into the net.

In winning his three qualifying matches and his first-rounder—Paolo Bertolucci of Italy, Marco Ostoja of Yugoslavia, Pablo Arraya of Peru and Fernando Luna of Spain were the victims, for those keeping score—Borg seemed cautiously aggressive off the ground but tentative in the face of tactical stress. Yet there it was, a love and love victory over Ostoja, who's no pushover on the European dirt tracks.

"Before that match we were all questioning his infallibility, his invincibility," said Paul McNamee, the Australian doubles specialist. "I mean, Borg's Number Six on the computer now. He's not the young Viking Number One, anymore. The guys aren't afraid of him the way they were. Then he threw that 6-0, 6-0 up there. Damn! We hadn't seen a score like that in six months. I thought, 'Oh, no, here we go again.' "

Then: trouble in paradise. Few observers thought Noah would be ready for Borg. A week earlier he had lost in the finals at Nice to Balazs Taroczy 13-11 in the third set. Fewer thought Adriano Panatta would be prepared. "It's too early in the season for Adriano," said McNamee. "It's just four months since Christmas."

But here came the dashing Panatta, who in a marvelously checkered career has squandered more talent than 90% of the players ever dream of having. Here came Panatta, the only man ever to beat Borg at the French. Here came Panatta from 2-6, 0-2, bearing down, taking the net, unleashing a variety of angle volleys and winning eight of the next nine games from a thoroughly uninvolved Borg.

Once Borg, in the midst of seven double faults, was so fed up he served underhanded and then smiled. Concentration? Another time he almost served to the wrong court. He shrugged and smiled again. Ultimately the match deteriorated into some appalling errors on both sides until Borg gathered himself to win 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

"My nerves were not that bad for a tough match," he said afterward. "I played it safe and took no chances. The underhander? That's the really safe one."

Noah had been watching all this and was not impressed. He knew he would be "comfortable" playing Borg, knew he could bother him. Later Noah would say, "Borg was not Borg." The Borg Noah spoke of was more like a man who hadn't played tennis in five months.

Early in their match Noah discovered he could stay back. He didn't have to risk anything on the attack, so rushed and out of sorts and discombobulated was the former world champion. "The gap was large. I always felt safe," said Noah later. He discovered one other thing. At the changeovers Noah heard Borg, the great, iced Swede, whistling. "What is this?" Noah said to himself. "Yes, he's whistling. Things are not normal."

Give Noah his due. After Borg broke Noah in the opening game of the match, Noah ran off six straight games and didn't lose another point on his service for the remainder of the set. On his serve, Borg double-faulted to lose the second game, sprayed two setup forehands to drop the fourth and absolutely hacked his way through the jungle of the sixth, when, among other horrors, he sheepishly dumped a backhand volley into the net from no-man's-land. Besides digging his huge deliveries into the baked earth Noah was mixing the pace nicely—sliced floaters to the baseline, chipped returns, some delicate drops—and refusing to allow Borg any consistent rhythm. Borg kept teeing off on everything, anyway.

In the second set, after several of Borg's wild rainbow forehands had endangered sunbathers at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel below the club, he pulled the trigger on a swinging forehand volley from the service line. That winner gave him break point for 3-1, but Noah served an ace and then held. In the sixth game Borg had two more breakers, but on the first he looped a forehand nearly into the sea, and on the second Noah uncorked another ace. He wound up with 12.

Toward the end of the 55-minute match, both players seemed resigned to their fates. Noah, normally an emotional sort, merely grinned rather than erupted as he had after defeating Vilas in Paris last summer and Lendl in Palm Springs this winter. "If Bjorn had won here after being away, well it would not have been good for all of us," said Noah. "For me it was the time to beat him."

Borg said he was concerned. He said he was "satisfied and not satisfied. Before when I play six matches I'm usually in the finals, so I almost played a whole tournament." Almost. Borg said he will work hard and practice hard and schedule himself "to come back to the top level." As Noah pointed out, however, when one is in the habit of winning it is difficult to accept losing.

"We assume Bjorn is coming back because he wants to play," said Vilas. "But if he doesn't want it, that could be a grave problem." As the points fell so quickly last week, Borg hurriedly played out the string as if he had to catch a waiting helicopter. Maybe he did. Remember, Borg has to be places sooner now. That's the way it is for a qualifier.

TWO PHOTOSSTEVE POWELLBorg (foreground) routed Ostoja on center court in his second qualifying match.
PHOTOSTEVE POWELLBorg double-faulted seven times in his win over Panatta. TWO PHOTOSSTEVE POWELLThe royal Grimaldis—Albert, Stephanie, Caroline—and a security guard (center) weren't as excited by Borg as some.