Hey, Manny, I got it. The So-Long-Swede four. Here's the deal. We run the kid down through the baskets markets—you know, the ACC, the SEC and the Sunbelt and all those other tanktown paradises where they don't know forehands from net-cord judges. We do trade-outs with hotels, limos, the media. Stick ads in all the Baskin-Robbins. Hold press conferences in airports. Get the mayors to read proclamations, order plaques and trophies and humongous multicolored cakes and—get this—ice sculptures. Is this dynamite stuff or what? Then we dress Borg all in white, dim the house lights, turn on some anthem music and round up all the chicks to storm the locker room door. We're talkin' monster time here, pal. Am I right or am I right? Tag it? We tag it Bjorny Does The Bushes, what else? Hey, it worked for Barry Manilow.
And it worked out for Bjorn Borg, or at least for his promoters. So what if the tour turned out to be extremely hoked up, a lot tacky, a bit of a ripoff and inundated with sleaze. This was Borg's swan song in the U.S. Last week it consisted of five one-night stands in five cities. In Charlotte, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn. and Norfolk, Va. he played Roscoe Tanner; in Baton Rouge, La. and Providence, R.I. he faced Jimmy Connors. This week Borg was scheduled to play an eight-man event in Toronto, and on Monday he's slated to appear in Kansas City for yet another match with the omnipresent Tanner. That could well be the last time anyone this side of the Atlantic sees the best player of the age strike a tennis ball.
It should be acknowledged that this last roundup was planned long before Borg decided—last November or last month or last week or in the last few minutes or whenever it may have been—to retire. These exhibitions, or "exos" in player lingo, were originally intended to serve as preparation for Borg's return to the regular tournament circuit. But when news bulletins of his quitting emerged three weeks ago from all corners of the globe and most notably the mountains of Nepal, where Borg, his wife, Mariana, his parents. Rune and Margarethe, and his coach, Lennart Bergelin, were riding elephants, this particular series of appearances loomed as Borg's final fling on North American courts. So there. You didn't really think Borg had retired and then wantonly squeezed out a few more paydays, did you? Perish the thought. The elephant boy would never forget his commitments.
Moreover, who's to say this leave-taking was any less dignified than Joe Namath hanging on for dear life to his Los Angeles Ram earphones or Ray Leonard preening before the celebrity guests at his famous last bash. Still, as Borg wandered zombielike from airplane to limo to hotel to exo and back again last week, it was difficult to forgive him for double-fistedly backhanding himself into such a vulnerable position: a head-banded cartoon character tap-dancing at age 26 through the carny atmosphere of horridly commercial one-nighters. The announcement at the end of Presley concerts used to be so agonizingly final: "Elvis has left the building." Why, oh why, couldn't Bjorn Borg, the one and only Bjorn Borg, go out like Ted Williams, hitting the home run, instead of like Presley, wallowing in self-caricature?
February 14, 1983
On Wednesday, just before Charlotte's Winter Challenge, which is how the Borg-Tanner match was billed on some of the sponsoring beer's posters, the villain of the saga mused on Borg's predicament. "Tennis is so year-round these days, so involving," said Tanner, 'that you never get away from it unless you go to the wilderness. You never feel relaxed about not playing. Bjorn's decision must have been a relief to him. He's so loose, so on high."
Indeed, upon arriving from Katmandu by way of Bangkok and his home in Sands Point, N.Y., Borg looked refreshed, healthy, younger than he has since the day in 1976 that he won the first of his five Wimbledon championships. Clean-shaven, his hair clipped, Borg began the tour without either Mariana or Bergelin, whose sharp differences are now public record, at his side. Not that they had disagreed over or influenced Borg's retirement decision. That was his and his alone, and both wife and coach were stunned. According to Borg, after he told Mariana in late November in Stockholm that he planned to retire, "She thought I was crazy. Lennart was a player. He knows about the day that comes when you have nothing more to give."
Before the match in the Charlotte Coliseum, the Charlotte Choir Boys sang the Swedish national anthem. The Charlotte-Pops Ensemble played the theme from Sylvester Stallone. Borg and Tanner entered the court under raised rackets held by the ball boys. "I felt like we were getting married," said Tanner. Borg won in three straight sets before better than 9,000 fans. Later he was asked if he'd had fun. "Well, uh," Borg replied, bewildered. "I had to play the match. I'm pretty pleased."
In the confusion and crush of teen darlings enveloping Borg's car outside the coliseum, one of his police bodyguards was left behind. "I was surprised they mobbed Born [sic]," said the abandoned patrolman, John Horton, "but security-wise, this wasn't much, about 15 police. Now, we'll have about 45 to 50 for Ozzie Osbourne."
On Thursday, black and white limousines rolled out on the tarmac at Lovell Field in Chattanooga. The quarry was whisked away from the crowds to an isolated terminal, where he met the press and was presented the key to the city by Mayor Pat Rose. Then the limos roared downtown, a police escort screaming sirens and running red lights and forcing mere civilian riffraff onto the shoulders. Who was this. Cap Weinberger?
The who was a wide-eyed, gape-mouthed and shell-shocked Borg. The why and wherefore was W.E. Stamps & Associates, promoter of the Chattanooga and Norfolk matches. "You've got to understand Bjorn is a very, very close friend of mine," said Bill Stamps. "We brought him out of retirement at Industry Hills last summer in L.A. [where Borg played back-to-back exhibitions with Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis]. We thought it apropos we put him back to bed, so to speak." Stamps is a former celebrity agent from L.A. He said he wears his trademark Panama "so my people can spot me on court fast." He said he would throw Borg his "only retirement party" the next night in Norfolk. He said he would fly in some "stars." What stars? "Oh, you know, stars." What stars? "Oh, you know, future stars." What stars? "Look," Stamps said. "I'm a celebrity broker. I'll pick up the phone and get some stars. Maybe Donna Mills or Lionel Ritchie. Maybe Rogers will be in the area."
Rogers? Kenny Rogers? Ginger? Roy? Rogers Hornsby? Before the mystery could be solved, Stamps was introducing his retinue: Mrs. Barbara Stamps, who favors swirling Fawcettian waves and lollipop sunglasses; son Jesse, five, who was packing a plastic machine gun; and housekeeper Antonita from south of the border. "Hey, don't tell the Feds," said Stamps. "Hey Toni, you got a last name?" But that's not all. Stamps then wheels on his producer, Doug Bleeck, "formerly in late-night TV—In Concert and The Midnight Special"—and his photographer, Kim Mizuno. He presents them to any and all bystanders with a burst of similarly unhilarious racial-ethnic intros.
That night Borg lost 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 to Tanner, who was playing in his hometown. The highlight of the match came in the third set, when the Supreme Court in the Roundhouse arena at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga split open as Borg took a spectacular dive, landing on his keister. Borg came up laughing, but James Rose, a Supreme Court company employee who had braved possible sniper fire to truck the court up from Cartersville, Ga., wasn't pleased. "Makes a man prideful to see Be-yon, or however you say his name, goin' out on my stuff," said Rose. "But somebody took a damn mop to my court. No tape's gonna stay stuck with a damn mop wipin' the court. My overalls are still soaked."
Stamps seemed especially upset about Be-yon's behind, not to mention preoccupied with the news value of his spill. "Terrific," he said. "This'll be second paragraph, right?"
Later Borg was asked about Stamps. "Bill's a pretty funny guy," he said. "Actually, I don't know him really well. I think he's from, ah, L.A."
Friday. Norfolk. Bjorn Borg Goes Navy. The retirement party. Stars. Uh, oh. But first the players' limo couldn't leave the hotel in Chattanooga because Stamps wasn't ready. An elderly woman climbed into Borg's car. "I'm from the gree-ell [that's grill in English]," she squealed at Borg. "I want you to write 'To Lamarr' on this, Bjorn boy. That's two r's, and make it quick."
Borg signed, but Bill Ryan, his personal representative for this tour from the International Management Group, was getting itchy. Ryan is believed to be the first male ever to wear a turquoise shell necklace with a button-down Oxford shirt. He has been at odds with Stamps. "Let's go. We're out of here," barked Ryan at the driver.
"I don't want to be rude, sir," said the chauffeur, "but I don't work for you. I work for Mr. Stamps." Whoops.
Finally on the road, Ryan plotted revenge. Poring over tickets, bills and receipts, he said jokingly to Borg and Tanner and the warmup singles act of John Fitzgerald and Jimmy Brown, "Wouldn't it be great if we all just went on to Boston instead of Norfolk? Stamps would have heart failure."
Thing is, the tour nearly didn't go anywhere. Airport security in Chattanooga nabbed Jesse for brazenly carrying his machine gun past the X-ray machine, and by the time the entourage arrived at the gate, the flight was oversold. Borg wasn't asked if this ever happened when he was in the care of Bergelin.
When Borg finally arrived in Atlanta to change planes, who was boarding the same flight to Norfolk but Martina Navratilova. She carried a fox terrier puppy in a box. "Her name is K.D.," said Navratilova. "Killer Dog. But she's having a false pregnancy. It's sad."
On the next plane, Ryan to Stamps: "Can we get Martina into the retirement party?"
Stamps to Ryan: "Sure. Can you ask her to bring her dog?"
At Norfolk's Scope Arena, Borg whipped Tanner in straight sets before a packed house of 8,200. But, alas, at the retirement party after the match in the presidential ballroom of the Hotel Madison, neither Navratilova nor K.D. was anywhere to be found. Nor were any stars. Where were the stars? "We got some big-cheese NATO commander coming later on," said Bleeck. That's no star. "Hey, if there's a war, he'll be a star."
At his only retirement party, Borg sat in a corner, far away from the smoke, the noise, the chaos and the revolting 125-pound yellow tennis-ball cake. He signed his name approximately 48,000 times on items Stamps handed him. "I hate like hell to make this a cattle call," yelled Stamps at the crowd through the haze. "But look, you got Bill Stamps, hard hat, or"—he took off his Panama—"convertible." A quick attendance check disclosed not one Mr. or Mrs. Rogers.
Following one of his numerous pastings by Borg at Wimbledon, Connors said, "I'll follow the sonofabitch to the ends of the earth." One of the ends apparently was to be Baton Rouge on Saturday night, and among Connors' demands of promoter Billy McGehee Jr. was that the match be only two of three sets and that immediately afterward Connors be furnished a private jet from Baton Rouge to Providence. McGehee is the publisher of a Louisiana sports tabloid, even though, he says, "I've never enjoyed reading in my life." But he can read bottom lines, and he had sold more than 9,000 seats at the Centroplex arena.
Unbeknownst to Connors, however, Ryan changed the private flight to Sunday morning because he wanted to "party" in Baton Rouge. On the trip to Louisiana, Borg and his gang whiled away the hours betting on which question would be asked first in each city's press conference and how quickly recently resigned Philadelphia Eagles Coach Dick Vermeil's name would come up. "I know this Vermeil," said Borg on Eastern Flight 519. "Was he really burnt out? I am not burnt out." Passengers filed by Borg, recreating the art of the double-take. A blonde in a red sweater returned, pencil poised. "O.K., which one are you?" she said. Obviously a Dick Vermeil fan.
Upon arriving in Baton Rouge, everyone headed for the Sheraton, where Connors, who had checked in the day before, was furious about the plane change and was threatening to take a hike. He was heard to announce, "Ryan doesn't run the show. I run the show." Voil√†. A compromise. Connors will take the private plane on Saturday night; Borg and Ryan will go commercial to Providence on Sunday morning.
Borg and Connors saw each other for the first time outside the hotel. "Jimbo, man," said Borg. "What's happenin'," replied Connors. What is this, the NBA on CBS?
In the dressing room before that night's match, Borg slumped into a soft armchair while Connors small-talked with his brother, John, and some local friends. Borg asked Connors who was playing in the finals at Philadelphia. Connors asked Borg what his plans were and how Tanner was hitting. Then it was game time.
The opening set was a revelation for whoever questions the motivation of two sturdy champions when they toil against each other, be it in exos or dominoes. Connors took a 5-3 lead, but Borg rallied after a wondrous backhand. "And you're going to retire after that——," roared Connors across the net.
With Borg up 5-4 in the first-set tiebreaker, Connors' return of serve was a foot deep, but the linesman signaled good. Borg fell over backward in disbelief. The umpire promptly overruled the call, making the score 6-4 Borg. Both players then approached the chair and unwittingly staged a rather remarkable microcosm of their careers. A furious Connors grabbed the microphone and screamed, "Keep your mouth shut. Get down from the chair. You're through." A placid Borg shook the umpire's hand. The umpire stayed put.
Borg won the tiebreaker on the next point. But soon Connors gained control, and he went on to win 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, but not before his exhausted opponent, subsisting on three hours' sleep and some vital pride, nearly overcame a 1-5 deficit in the final set. The following night Connors defeated a weary Borg 6-4, 6-4 before 9,800 spectators at the Providence Civic Center. After the match Borg said that he had tried his best but that he was glad the five days had finally come to an end.
Before Borg left Baton Rouge for Rhode Island, a journalist asked him, "When will I see you again?" The reporter first had visited Borg in Sweden when he was 17, and only now, on a cold, rainy night in Louisiana, did it occur to the journalist that this could be the end after all.
"I don't know," said Borg. "It might be quite some time." And just like that he was gone into the darkness, into the shadows of his future—to another limo, another plane, another exo and perhaps another life as well. The question lingers still. Has the great Borg left the building for good?