To be one of them is to be young and brave, swift and reserved, polite and frugal. For the most part they're blond and have more fun than any allegedly dull, rubber-stamp automatons have any right to. The Swedes. To be one of them is to be all. A unit, not a man. A symbol, not flesh and blood or merely two fists on the backhand.
Typecasting by passport, as Americans tend to do, isn't so bad if you're Mats Wilander, for instance, and cherish privacy, not to mention sanity. Despite winning his second French Open two weeks ago, Wilander can unpack his beloved golf clubs anywhere in the U.S. and remain unrecognized, though he's arguably the second-best tennis player in the world. He might go unidentified at most tennis clubs as well. Just another one of the Swedes. On other continents, however, there's no such anonymity for these remarkable young players who have arrived out of the backwater regions of deepest Scandinavia to turn the game on its ear. During the German Open two months ago in Hamburg, a department store featured an enormous photo of Wilander, surrounded by lights, in its show window. The official poster for the Swedish Open is another huge picture—not of Wilander but of Henrik Sundstrom, whose face is sufficiently familiar that to identify him by name would be superfluous.
For a couple of years now evidence has been mounting that Swedish dominance in tennis is nigh. Bjorn Borg was the original taste, but he was thought to be a freakish anomaly. And he was. His wanton athleticism and extraordinary performances on grand occasions brought him five Wimbledon and six French Open titles. A Swede. As Borg began amassing his championships, somebody said it was as if a Calcutta ricksha boy were quarterbacking the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl.
Soon enough, ricksha boys with blond hair and devastating ground strokes were cropping up all over Sweden. By late 1982, 10 Swedes were ranked among the top 200 players in the world, and that didn't include Sundstrom and Stefan Edberg, perhaps the most promising of them all, who were unranked juniors. This meant that a fraction more than one Swede per every million inhabitants of this snowy sliver of Scandinavia, with 8.3 million people, were among the best tennis players in captivity.
June 23, 1985
And these weren't merely clay court specialists. Last year three of the four semifinalists at the ATP Championships in Cincinnati were Swedes, and four were seeded at the U.S. Open. Both tournaments are played on hard courts. Moreover, in 1984 Swedes won nine singles championships, eight doubles titles, the NCAA singles championship (Michael Pernfors of Georgia by way of Holldiksnas, and he repeated this year), the Olympic gold medal (Edberg) and the Davis Cup. At present five Swedes—Wilander (officially No. 4), Anders Jarryd (6), Joakim Nystrom (8), Edberg (14) and Sundstrom (17)—are ranked in the Top 20, and 14 are in the top 245. All but two of them are 23 or younger. Of the 28 Americans who entered this year's French Open, three reached the round of 16. Five of the eight Swedes in the tournament made it that far.
Borg was the progenitor of this tribe, but his success posed one brutal negative for the game in the homeland: He wiped out the entire first half of the generation that followed him, players who were intimidated, beaten and buffeted out of the sport on the winds of his brilliance. Wilander and the others who came later never had to face Borg at his peak, so when their time came the path was clear. Wilander's time came very early, and so definitive was its impact that he may be almost as responsible as the great Borg for the state of Swedish tennis.
In June 1982, Wilander was No. 12 on the computer but relatively unknown. Two months shy of his 18th birthday—even younger than Borg had been when he won the French for the first time, in 1974—Wilander beat Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose-Luis Clerc and Guillermo Vilas in succession to triumph at the French Open. Wilander made two other lasting impressions in Paris that year, and these characterize Swedish tennis: He displayed good sportsmanship and a feeling for group camaraderie. In the semis, Wilander silenced the normally yawping Court Central crowd when he gave back a point to Clerc. Never mind that it was match point. After a bad call the umpire had declared the match over, but Wilander insisted the point be replayed. "I cannot win this way," he said. On an earlier day Wilander had skipped all preparations for his own match because he was running rackets back and forth from the locker room to his bosom buddy, Nystrom. "When Joaky loses, I lose," Wilander says often.
The point is this: Wilander's '82 French showed the Swedes they could win. They didn't even have to live up to Borg anymore. Matsy was one of them, younger than many. He was not a genius and hardly a workaholic. He pushed shots and won on anticipation and ingenuity. The other Swedes beat him all the time in practice. Now Matsy had gone out and whipped the world. So, when Matsy did it, no one came down with that disease known as kungliga Svenska avundsjuka (royal Swedish jealousy). "You can't imagine how excited we were for Mats those two weeks," says Jarryd. As well as for themselves.
John-Anders Sjogren, 45, captain of the national team until last December, recognized that working with 10 to 12 young players was a costly proposition allowing sparse individual development. "We are from a small country with our own special language," he says. "It is our national character to stay together, to help out each other, to be there. This is the team idea."
Sjogren decided to form a small team—four players would be ideal—of youngsters who would be instilled with responsibility for, and loyalty to, one another. The Swedish construction firm SIAB agreed to sponsor the venture, and Sjogren picked Wilander, Jarryd, Nystrom and Hans Simonsson, the last a striking heartthrob to the Borg manner and mane born, as his original Fab Four.
"The Swedes' communal sense of going along to get along is tied to their culture," says Tim Mayotte of the U.S., who's ranked 18th. "Their plan was simply that the strength of a group increases the success of the individuals. It's terrific—for them. We aren't brought up that way. But when I play a Swede, I usually see the others supporting him. That's a psychological edge right there."
The benefits of the team structure to Wilander, Jarryd and Nystrom have been obvious. (Simonsson shared the 1983 French Open doubles title with Jarryd before fading off into the harsh caves of computerland. He is now ranked No. 226.) "I would not be where I am without a team," says Wilander. His tight bond with Nystrom and Jarryd remains unfettered by rankings, endorsements, celebrity or money. Now the trio has accepted Edberg as well and, to a lesser extent, Sundstrom, the lone wolf.
"They really are the Musketeers, one for all," says John Newcombe, who compares the Swedes to his old Australian peerage—Rosewall, Laver, Stolle, Emerson and the rest. "I'm not sure they'd have their results without the team, except Wilander. He could have made it without them and cut himself off, acted like number one. But he's not that way. Even when he loses, he stays around the tournament and roots for the other guys. He seems to know, as we did, that any other way he wouldn't be as happy. He'd never have the memories."
A fond recollection for all the Swedes surely will be of last April 11 in Dallas, where Nystrom upset John McEnroe at the WCT Championships. Wilander and Nystrom had been up partying most of the previous night. Swedes just wanna have fun, too. They had slept five hours and then negotiated 18 holes of golf in the afternoon. Neither practiced for his match that night. Wilander promptly lost his. Sundstrom had already lost—to Nystrom. Jarryd had already lost—to Edberg. Swedes lose mostly to other Swedes. They call these matches "popcorn" games. "Everything is tense, nervous. Everything is popping," says Wilander. Edberg would lose the next night.
Yet after Nystrom's 6-4, 7-6, 6-3 victory over McEnroe, who had won 23 straight matches in 1985, there they were, all of them, gathered in the locker room. While Nystrom telephoned his pregnant wife, Susan, back home in Skelleftea, they swapped recollections of the match for more than an hour, slapping occasional high fives. Wilander, Sundstrom and Jarryd had already beaten McEnroe. Edberg (with Jarryd) had beaten Mac (with Peter Fleming) in doubles to clinch the Davis Cup in December. Now Nystrom had done it. Of McEnroe's 18 defeats in the last 2½ years, seven have come at the hands of Swedes.
"It is very relaxing when we get together and talk," says Sundstrom, the thinker of the bunch. "It is like we are all sitting in a small Swedish village."
And so the Reunion Arena locker room, home of the Dallas Mavericks, became another little piece of Scandinavia. But they all might as well have been back in Bastad, near the windy rocks of Laholms Bay, where they had prepared for just such a moment in the development camps of their, ah, youth.
Bastad sits in the midst of a geographical cornucopia of mustard plain, hilly beech woods, heather moorland and craggy inlets, high above the Nordic Straits in the southwest corner of the country, a kind of Carmel-by-Cape Cod. The tiny resort was constructed around the turn of the century by the Nobel family of the dynamite fortune and the prizes. Fittingly, King Gustaf V ascended the Swedish throne at about the same time, bringing with him an abiding love of tennis. Today all of the country's outdoor Davis Cup ties as well as the Swedish Open are held in Bastad.
Though everyone knew who he was, old King Gustaf, a hacker's hacker, played in tournaments under the pseudonym Mr. G. On the French Riviera, where Mr. G was known by respectful opponents to engage in constant royal hookery, a park and a street are named after him. In Bastad, where he played competitively until he was 88, a sign at the nexus of lanes leading to Center Court and the beach indicates MR. G'S VAG (or way).
Mr. G begat tennis in Sweden, but Jan-Erik Lundquist, the touch artist of the 1960s, brought the sport into the streets. Before Lundquist, Sweden's contribution to the world ranks had been Sven Davidson, who reached the finals of the French Open three years running. Lundquist, however, captured the imagination of the populace, winning the Italian Open in 1964 and leading the Davis Cup team to the European finals five straight years.
In 1969 the Swedish Tennis Association decided to take advantage of the wonderful facilities in Bastad and opened the first of a series of "Davis Cupskoolas," which are tennis camps staffed by the nation's best trainers for its best junior players. Today these camps are divided into age groups and spread throughout the summer, following a one-week session in May expressly for the elite of the elite.
The 14-to-18 age group session is called Elit Lager, meaning Elite Camp. Down the road are the younger tykes—if one can imagine Johan Alven, who won both the Orange Bowl and Rolex 12-and-under championships in the U.S. last December and is strong enough to drive a forehand through the windshield of a Saab, being a tyke. The younger kids are housed in a separate facility, a camp known by the name of its sponsor, Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) comic books. In addition, come September the association plans to open a full-time school in Bastad for about 20 selected junior players. "We would like our kids to exercise their minds as well as their bodies," says Leif Dahlgren, director of education for the association, mindful that Sweden's most famous tennis kid unfortunately grew up versed exclusively in the collected works of Kalle Anka.
The Bastad camps are the culmination of Sweden's comprehensive junior program. "We're here to train, but we stress the social aspects," says Michael Bolander, who runs the program. "Many of these kids have the goal of the Top 10, but right now we want them just to be kids and have fun. We hope they will like and support everybody else. The camaraderie of our top guys on the tour is no accident. That started here."
So did the Swedish court behavior, as 16-year-old Ulf Persson discovered. "Our kids see how European crowds react to them in the different junior tournaments," says Bolander. "Last year Italian fans cheered the Swede kids, if you can believe it. So Persson was always talking mad to himself, screaming, being a nuisance. I told him I wasn't going to be responsible for his wrecking our reputation outside the country." Nevertheless, Persson "acted up" in a recent tournament in Stockholm, which cost him a chance to attend the Elite Camp and play internationally.
Carina Karlsson, 21, and Catarina Lindqvist, 22, Sweden's best women players, showed up at Bastad direct from the Virginia Slims tour. They were seeking stiff workouts, as well as retracing the steps that took Lindqvist to her current ranking of No. 12 in the world and enabled Karlsson to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last summer. They are the first world-class female players Sweden has produced in a long time. "Only one girl to every five boys plays tennis in Sweden," says Dahlgren. "It is a mystery unless it's because Borg is the only role model—no women. There is also a belief that our girls haven't worked hard enough. After a loss they retire to pool-side or go shopping."
Nobody makes much money off tennis in Sweden. Not only does the cost of a family membership in a tennis club average only $20 per year, but also 50% of all membership revenue received by the national body goes back to the 23 regional associations, which in turn shovel most of that back into the junior programs. Some 52,000 juniors are enrolled in the nation's 975 tennis clubs. At the Oregro club outside Stockholm, for example, juniors make up 373 of the 491 members.
And the kids aren't exactly being brainwashed with provincial doctrine. Back in Bastad, the spindly Alven roared, around the gymnasium, weaving through legs and sticks in an indoor version of the hockeylike game of bandy. When he finally sat down and caught his breath, the youngster was asked in a wide-ranging interview that lasted all of eight seconds who his favorite tennis player was. Alven wears his hair like Jarryd, emits the cool of Nystrom and measures his responses carefully, like Sundstrom. He has Edberg's paradoxical look of dangerous innocence. Remember, he is the predicted successor to Wilander and, yes, even to Borg. Alven smiled. "Ivan Lendl," he said.
Meanwhile, out on the tour...
As in Dennis. With a shock of sandy bangs and an engaging grin, Edberg, 19, is the fraternity boy you would be glad to let your daughter entertain in the parlor. As long as he doesn't burn down the house. Edberg seems all soft. He's the shyest of the Swedes, the most genteel in conversation. His gangly 6'2" body has yet to fill out. But something's lurking deep within. Don't mess with me. As soon as Edberg winds up his stinging serve-and-volley repertoire, it isn't difficult to realize how he has made so much history at such a young age.
Sweden has been waiting for Edberg to fulfill his vast promise ever since Percy Rosberg, Borg's original coach, grabbed Edberg by the two-handed backhand and convinced him his natural aggression would be better served if he worked on a one-hander. (Rosberg had advised Borg just the opposite.) So was created a character out of Ripley: a Swede who was dynamite on fast courts.
The son of a policeman, Edberg grew up at a tennis club without locker rooms in Vastervik. In 1983 he became the only player ever to win the junior Grand Slam. A year later Edberg jumped from 83 to 17 on the computer in two weeks—another record. Then he won the Olympic gold medal in L.A. Earlier this year he thrashed Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-4 en route to winning the U.S. Indoors in Memphis.
At first Edberg was too impressed by the other Swedes. "He was at their demands," says one of his advisers, Erik Bergelin, the son of Borg's former coach, Lennart. But victories over Jarryd and Wilander at Milan in March '84 made the kid one of the gang. In Goteborg in December the Swedes were ready to replace Edberg in the key doubles of the Davis Cup finals if they were shy of a 2-0 lead. Holding serve all day, Edberg was the best player on the court in the clinching match.
"Two years ago at Wimbledon I see this guy lose to Sundstrom in second round, 8-6 in fifth," says Rino Tommasi, the Italian guru of tennis journalism. "I say, if this guy does not win Wimbledon in five years, I will quit writing tennis. Of course, if he does not, I will not remind anybody. But if he does...." Watch Dennis the Menace on the All England Club lawns the next two weeks. Tommasi isn't about to retire.
Distinguishing Jarryd, 23, of Lidkoping from the other Swedes never used to be a problem. He was the doubles specialist—already this year he has won four doubles titles with four different partners—the one who wore glasses, the awkward fellow with the funny strokes and the bowlegs. He also screamed and stomped and carried on. The other Swedes suspect that if the Grand Prix supervisors could understand their language, Jarryd would lead the tour in fines, if not suspensions. "Stoicism is no big thing, just the way we are," Nystrom says. "Except for Jarryd. He's crazy."
Now equipped with contact lenses that give him an even wilder-eyed look than before—Elton John launching into, say, Madman Across the Water—Jarryd says he needs to be "tense, eager, pumped-up, or else I will lose. The guys laugh at me, but one has to find one's own style. When I behave myself bad, though, after the match I don't like it."
Jarryd made his move in singles at the 1983 Canadian Open, in which he upset Eliot Teltscher, Gerulaitis and McEnroe before losing to Lendl in the finals. Jarryd's terrific hands and mobility—developed by playing bandy on the ice back home—have made up for his unorthodox style on serve and at net. Some of Jarryd's twisted-arm, jumbled-leg saving volleys are framed in the Bureau of Silly Gets. When on a roll, however, he is virtually unstoppable. Forget "reading" him. Jarryd led McEnroe 6-2, 3-0, 40-30 at the Masters in January before he admittedly choked. "I don't remember ever being beaten that badly for a set and a half," Mac said.
It's in the taut, bone-sweating clinches of his big matches that the placidity, the insouciance, the persona of doom warmed over become instantly recognizable. If anyone is a spiritual clone of Borg, it's Nystrom. "I know the muscles in Joakim's face don't work," said U.S. player Billy Scanlon, sitting in the Dallas audience during Nystrom's upset of McEnroe, "but somebody ought to tell him to at least breathe hard."
Stories of Nystrom's cool abound. Nystrom reading a book under a tree just before playing the final in North Conway, N.H. Nystrom falling asleep in the backseat of a car before another big match. Marriage to Susan, a hometown honey from Skelleftea, has opened him up. They lived together for a couple of years before being wed. In Sweden such a living arrangement is known as sambo, a far superior description, you will agree, to our ever popular "relationship." Daughter Caroline will be two in September, and another Nystrom baby is due this summer. The man of the house still looks light-years away from being legally served a light beer. The Swedes, laughing, call Nystrom Poppa.
Wilander is Nystrom's best friend and alter ego. Nystrom, 22, met Wilander long ago when the infant Viking wandered down from his north-country home, just this side of the polar ice cap, to startle the assemblage of coaches and players at Bastad. "He was from nowhere, and he looked no problem," says Wilander. But Joaky beat Matsy and made him cry. "He's probably forgotten crying," says Nystrom. "No, I haven't," says Wilander. Nystrom hasn't beaten Wilander since.
One day in Bastad when Sundstrom was a young boy, he served as gofer at a practice session for Borg and the elder Bergelin. Sundstrom fetched a fresh can of water. He stumbled. He spilled the water all over Borg's rackets. This might have been the last time anybody saw Sundstrom, the most elegant and poised of the bunch, play the clod.
Sundstrom, 21, travels, lives and practices apart from the other Swedes, having come to appreciate independence early in his teens when he went off alone to play tournaments in North Africa and Asia and on circuits not even Bud Collins could find. Born into the family of a respected dental surgeon in Lund, Sundstrom experienced a rich childhood. He learned to play the clarinet, took an interest in politics and enjoyed his parents' summer house near Bastad. He is of a class distinct from the other Swedes.
There are whispers that he sometimes shows it, and not just because he reads books, plays the ponies or dresses to kill. Sundstrom walking through a hotel lobby with his designer trenchcoat, collar turned up, suggests a GQ fashion layout. The man oozes style. So what if he flies transcontinental first class while Wilander and Nystrom sit in coach? He just wants to be alone. Indeed, look closely at the structure and highlights of Sundstrom's exquisite face and deny his visage is a haunting refrain of the young Garbo's. "I think we should all be seen as individuals, as persons," Sundstrom says. "The only thing that counts in life is knowledge. At the same time we read L'Equipe [the French sports daily] we should read the International Herald Tribune."
Sundstrom-Wilander is the Swedish rivalry. They never speak of it. Neither bad-mouths the other. But the tension is there; the two are "like non-fighting cocks," according to a mutual friend.
Sundstrom devoured McEnroe in the Davis Cup finals on clay. However, "Henka" remains basically a bullet-smacking baseliner with little lateral speed or facility on the volley. He will have to alter his game drastically on faster surfaces to catch Wilander, who defeated McEnroe in Paris after Mac had eliminated both Sundstrom and Nystrom. Recently Sundstrom hired Fred Stolle to train him for just that purpose. "I envy Mats that which is his nature," Sundstrom says, "the ability to be relaxed. Sometimes after working so hard at tennis, I sit down and actually make an effort to relax. I need to find that harmony."
Paris, 1983. Jose Higueras: "It is a pleasure to play against Mats. He is such a gentleman and a sportsman." Wimbledon, 1983. John Fitzgerald: "I hope he becomes number one. The game needs players like him."
As we all know, athletes—particularly tennis players—just don't say things like that about their fellows, even when asked. These were unsolicited remarks by two of the more pleasant competitors in the game. Remarkably, Wilander, 20, commands even more respect and popularity two years later, now that he has added a couple of Australian Opens on grass and another French Open on clay, has been a contributing member of the ATP board of directors and has demonstrated a wondrous dexterity for mimicking his peers—from their service-return preparations to the way they walk. Never maliciously, of course. "I've played whole tournaments hitting the Vilas forehand," says Wilander. Observers say his Ramesh Krishnan is the hoot of the lot.
Has there ever been a question of all work and no play making Mats a dull boy? Certainly not. On the changeover in a recent doubles match, Wilander handed Fitzgerald a poem about the Aussie's feet that he and Nystrom had composed. It ran six stanzas, all in English verse and unsuitable for a family publication. "Fitzy was laughing so hard he couldn't hit a ball," says his partner, Paul McNamee.
Wilander will dance on a table with a lampshade over his head until 4 a.m. most any time. According to Matt Doyle of the U.S., Wilander's performance at one nocturnal bacchanal in Sydney, coupled with his bleary-eyed annihilation of Johan Kriek the next day, was beyond human understanding. And who can forget Wilander's on-and-off girl friend, the spectacular Anette Olsen, who went from a job in a pizzeria to fashion modeling?
Wilander has taken up the guitar. He travels the circuit with his golf clubs, playing lefthanded to a 12 handicap. Now, if he could only break down and throw away his venerable torn-up jeans, as his mother urges. "The circuit is in these," Wilander says of the denims that he'd worn in grade school in the industrial center of Vaxjo.
Surely the press would vote the Boss Swede accommodator of the year in any garb, so familiar is his good-humored cooperation. As the young Czech sensation, Miloslav Mecir, was in the process of wiping out Nystrom, Wilander and Sundstrom in Hamburg, Wilander confronted the man who would write this story. "Swedish tennis, eh?" he said. "You better hop a train to Bratislava."
The Swedish press gave Borg a wide berth before he moved from Sweden to the Riviera, before the revelations of his commercial interests and marital problems. Then the newsmen wasted Borg, after which he stopped speaking to them in Swedish. Soon he stopped speaking altogether. "It is quite astonishing for two champions, Borg and Wilander, to be so different," says one journalist. "Borg was selfish and greedy, a terrible man. He sold his wedding story to the highest bidder. He's probably sold his divorce as well. He'd sell his mother if possible. This guy, Mats, goes out of his way to help us and be pleasant."
Because Borg was the first to move away from the country's crippling tax structure and to demand a Davis Cup salary, he suffered severe public abuse that hasn't touched the current Swedes, all of whom have done the same thing. However, should they encounter criticism, they're likely to be prepared. Whether they've just won a Grand Slam championship or suffered a first-round defeat, the Swedes heed that old Swedish warning: "Upp som en sol, ner som en pannkaka" (Up like the sun, down like the pancake). Or as Sjogren, the balding, avuncular coach who set out to rule the tennis world by converting this most individual of games into a team sport, says, "Win some, lose some, but always stay the same guy."
Surely, the Swedes have remained true to that credo.