He stood there, leaning on the long, polished bar, almost like a mirage, out of the mists of time. One moment the massive crowd, bearing notebooks, cameras and microphones, waiting in the adjoining ballroom of the elegant Sporting Club in Monte Carlo, was buzzing with anticipation. Then, all of a sudden, poof! He was there.
He had the same uncombed blond tresses straggling below his neck just so, the same slouched insouciance, the same narrow-eyed grin. He was wearing a yellow cardigan sweater, and he looked, well, the same. Which is to say terrific. "He is always the great-looking boy, eh?" says his first wife, Mariana Simionescu Borg, who resides in the hills above Monaco and who keeps her former husband's name though she lives with a race car driver with whom she has had a son and though it is six years after the divorce.
Before anybody could reach Borg, French movie idol Alain Delon and Prince Albert of Monaco escorted him into the ballroom, where Delon would pick his name from a silver bowl. Everyone who was anyone was waiting to see whom he would play in the first round of the Monte Carlo Open, his first serious tennis match in what...nine...ten...nine hundred and ten years?
Mon Dieu! How long has it been since the boy—his three or four facial lines sparse evidence of his 34 years—bade farewell to tennis and tumbled into a harsh universe, to be overwhelmed by chaos and controversy in both his professional and personal lives? Can he find happiness by coming back to the fount of his only triumphs, to the one thing he used to do better than anybody else in the world?
May 5, 1991
In 1981 the great Bjorn Borg, having won the French Open six times and Wimbledon five years in succession, was existing on a paradisiacal plateau, protected from the mundane realities of life on the circuit by Mariana (or Scumpo, "darling" in her Romanian tongue) and Lennart Bergelin, his coach. Bergelin would handle the plane tickets and string the rackets; Mariana would iron the shirts and cook the steaks. "We were home to him," she says. "We were Sweden." And Bjorn would win the tournaments.
Back then Borg didn't say much in his tedious press conferences. One thing he did say, invariably, in his cracked English, no matter how well he had played, was this: "Sings could shange from day to day." Coming from the pearly, golden-faced Borg, this statement always seemed strangely humorous, or humorously strange—until John McEnroe beat him at Wimbledon in that summer of '81, and then again at the U.S. Open two months later. For sure—something else Borg always used to say—sings really did shange.
Borg played but one tournament in each of the next three years, seemingly driven out of Dodge by the raw, cacophonous brilliance of the young, lefthanded gun. In truth, however, it wasn't McEnroe who forced Borg from the game he had graced since the age of, Lord, 17! It was Borg's own horrifyingly insular existence.
"We never had an adolescence," says Mariana, who played professionally for nine years before marrying Borg. "Bjorn and I started [playing] tennis, started together, so young, there was never anything but the game. We were closed off. Our development was inhibited. We never had time to live like real people."
Borg may not have been the inspiration for the current catch phrase "get a life," but he seemed determined to change his. With a game built around speed, mental toughness and hard work, and with McEnroe in ascendance, Borg knew he couldn't cut back, spend fewer hours on the practice court, and remain at the top. He either had to continue doing what he was doing or stop playing. Period. So he quit. At 26, promising "absolutely nothing" would get him to return to competitive tennis, Borg announced his retirement in January 1983.
"And left the game wanting," says Arthur Ashe. "I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam. But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody. He'd lost touch with the real world."
In truth Borg was only just entering reality. Upon departing from tennis, he said it would be nice to wake up in his sumptuous apartment in Monaco, overlooking Cap Martin, and know that he didn't have to practice. What happened was that he woke up to a terrible void. "He didn't know what to do; he didn't know his place," says Mariana. "It was so sad. Bjorn would watch TV, then go out with the night people. He wanted to have another life, but he'd say, 'What am I going to do now?' "
What he came up with over the next few years was some promotion work for the Swedish tourist board and SAS, and a disastrous foray into a bewildering swamp known as business. Soon there was Bjorn Borg Enterprises, a holding company for various ventures, including Bjorn Borg Invest, which dealt mainly in real estate, and the Bjorn Borg Design Group, which designed and marketed sportswear; it also developed and marketed a cologne and an after-shave. They may or may not have smelled like green grass and red clay; they didn't last long enough for anybody to find out.
In addition Borg cut himself off from his support group, his roots; from his mentor-gofer, Bergelin; from Mariana, whom he divorced the year after he announced his retirement; and from his advisers at the International Management Group, who had expanded his $3.6 million in winnings into an estimated personal fortune of $75 million. Borgologists say that after a number of business setbacks, a divorce and various and sundry lawsuits, nearly three fourths of that money is now gone. But it is folly to think of Borg as some old pug boxing champion whose fortune was squandered by dishonest strangers.
The stoic, conservative Borg was always drawn to risk takers, people with reckless personalities the opposite of his own. When he was playing, that group included three of the game's best-known playboys: Adriano Panatta of Italy, Vitas Gerulaitis of the U.S. and the dark prince of crazy, Romania's Ilie Nastase. In his new life he gravitated back to Sweden and to Christer Gustafsson, a public relations man he had met at a disco and with whom he later sailed Sweden's archipelago; Eric Steiner, a professional poker player who ran the White Elephant gambling club in London; and Onni Nordstrom, an agent who threw celebrity-studded parties for Borg and who would sign Don Johnson to endorse a Swedish ice cream.
But, again, they are not to blame. "Bjorn take bad advice?" says Mariana, laughing. "A person who never took a piece of advice in his whole life can't have advisers, good or bad."
In 1985, Borg sold a 25% share of Bjorn Borg Enterprises to Lars Skarke, a former office-supply salesman in Sweden and an executive of a sports-marketing company called Projekthus. According to the respected Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter, others in the business world often refer to Skarke as Skurke (Swedish for "scoundrel"), and Borg's lawyer, Henning Sjostrom, told the same paper that Skarke's dealings with Borg "came close to being a swindle. Those who played with Borg's assets have done it for their personal use. They have lived high on his money."
The Swedish magazine Hant reported that Skarke preferred private planes, helicopters and limousines to standard transportation, and that even after Bjorn Borg Enterprises fell upon hard times in 1989, Skarke's country manor on Ekero, an island near Stockholm, still housed luxury cars and Arabian horses. Hunt also reported that Skarke used Borg's money to bestow on his partner birthday gifts of water mopeds and stereos. Skarke denies any improprieties and says that the only gift he bought his partner was a dog. And after the Borg ventures folded, it was Skarke who filed suit, demanding $12 million in damages from Borg and telling reporters that Borg "stole my 25 percent in the company." Borg declined to be interviewed for this story.
Whatever the facts of the dispute with Skarke, Borg's ex-wife, for one, views Borg as a victim. "Bjorn was like a fish in with sharks," says Mariana. (She did not say Skarkes.) "But if he had stayed with IMG, none of this would have happened. All he wanted to do was go back to Sweden and prove he could do it on his own."
That also meant minus Mariana. When he was playing, women were as foreign to Borg as literature. Or business. Oh, he was tennis's first sex throb for teenyboppers, but all those libidinous squealers were merely fans to be shooed away by Bergelin while Borg got on with his practice and his early curfew.
In '84 Borg as stud-entrepreneur went traipsing about the globe, living on the edge. He posed for paparazzi with party lizardettes like London's Mandy Smith and judged beauty contests, one of which included an aspiring model from Stockholm named Jannike Bjorling. When Mariana read in the International Herald Tribune that her husband had shown up in Hawaii in August 1984 with Bjorling, who was 17 at the time, she called him on the phone. "Scumpo," he said to her, "I'm sorry. I'm not coming back."
The divorce was amicable. "I didn't ask for much," she says. "Only that I live comfortably for the rest of my life."
Borg never married Bjorling. ("They were like two bison in a clinch, equally strong and stiff-necked," says a mutual friend from Stockholm.) About two years after Bjorling bore him a son, Robin, in 1985, the couple split and agreed to share custody of the child. In the summer of 1988, after Borg had taken up with another woman, Italian rock star Loredana Berte, Bjorling had second thoughts about the agreement.
On A Current Affair she told Maury Povich that, yes, there would be a custody battle and that it would make Borg "very, very angry." In Z, a satirical Swedish magazine, she accused him of having been a cocaine user during their relationship. Borg sued Z for defamation, won and collected $12,500. Borg has agreed to provide Bjorling with a spacious apartment in Stockholm plus $1,300 monthly in living expenses. Bjorling, a regular in the city's glitziest night spots, has taken a job as a nurse's attendant, and there has been speculation in the Swedish press that she has done so in part to counter criticism that she is what Dagens Nyheter called a "kept woman."
Berte, meanwhile, knows all about public ridicule. A questionable 40, she was born in depressed Calabria, the center of Italy's kidnapping industry. Whether Berte cradle-snatched Borg is moot, inasmuch as he was smitten the first moment he saw the smoldering songbird with the wild-in-the-streets act on TV. "Who in dat?" world is dat?" Borg asked his buddy Panatta, who was quite knowledgeable in such matters.
In the early 1970s Berte was in the Italian cast of Hair. Later she posed nude for a magazine and toured with the colorful and at times outlandish rock singer Renato Zero. Donning jeans with the bottom cut out and leather outfits accessorized with whips and chains—eat your heart out, Madonna—Berte personified her trademark ditty, Non Sono una Signora. Translation: I'm not a lady. Nobody was about to contradict her. Two months ago in San Remo, unable to hit a note during a performance, she silenced the orchestra and then chastised it, shouting in Italian, "Get another job."
From being caustic and rude—she has also ripped her sister, singer Mia Martini, and her mother in the press—Berte became a gooey-eyed romantic after meeting Borg on the Spanish isle of Ibiza and then marrying him in September 1989.
The marriage silenced doubts about the relationship. Those doubts had peaked after Borg was rushed to a hospital from their apartment in Milan on Feb. 7, 1989, to have his stomach pumped free of sleeping pills. He said it was a case of food poisoning; the Italian press speculated about drugs. Another scenario had the couple engaged in a violent argument after which Borg, depressed about Bjorling's keeping him from seeing his son, attempted suicide.
Last week, with her husband having lost his comeback match in Monte Carlo in his seventh straight week away from home, it was Berte who was rushed to a hospital. Despondent over Borg's absence and rumors that he was philandering—upon hearing that Borg had been photographed with a female journalist, she telephoned Vincenzo Martucci, of the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, in Monte Carlo and reportedly screamed, "I'll kill him if there's another woman"—Berte reportedly took an overdose of a barbiturate. She, too, had to have her stomach pumped.
Berte had written a couple of suicide notes, one of which, according to Milan police, said: "I, Loredana Berte Borg, commend my soul to God and his infinite mercy and goodness. God has said he would forgive sinners." The next day, Borg left his parents' villa in Cap Ferrat, where he was staying during the tournament, to fly home to Milan.
Berte's suicide attempt came a month after the completion of a sale at public auction—to satisfy creditors—of Borg's Stockholm apartment, speedboat and car, along with his beloved estate, the archipelago paradise Vikingshill, just outside Stockholm. This does not mean Borg is broke—millions are in trust funds—just that he is sweeping the dust of Sweden off his feet, probably for good. In 1985 he moved back to Monte Carlo, where last week he refused to acknowledge the Swedish press in his native language, and his only show of emotion in his one press conference came when he was asked about his country. "For six years they [the Swedish media] tried to destroy me," he said. "I am happy to be out of Sweden."
Last August, Borg started practicing seriously in locales as diverse as Milan, Buenos Aires and London. Several tennis agents agree that if he is desperate for money, he can earn a quick half-million dollars simply by playing exhibitions against McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Obviously, this comeback is about restoring pride, self-image and respect for the Borg name. It is also about restoring some semblance of order to a life gone haywire. Who knows if even Borg knows exactly what he's doing? Or why? According to Jonas Svensson of Sweden, the 10th-ranked player in the world, who hit with Borg during those first days in Milan, his idol never mentioned returning to the tour. "I read it in the papers a few weeks ago, like everybody else," says Svensson.
During workouts in Monaco with heavy hitters like 23-year-old Boris Becker and 19-year-old Goran Ivanisevic, Borg distinguished himself mostly by playing points nonstop, preventing his youthful adversaries from taking respites for talk, water or even breath. "In fitness he's already Top 10," said Bob Brett, the canny Aussie coach who has recently switched horses, from Becker to Ivanisevic. "Bjorn exhausted Goran. The lesson was priceless." But when Becker was asked for an assessment of Borg's game, he said, "[He hits] with no Druck" using the German word for pressure.
Borg's return had been the talk of the tour. Nobody wanted to be the first one to test him, yet when Spain's Jordi Arrese, 26, a little-known clay-court specialist ranked 52nd in the world, got the call, Borg was given little chance. "Everybody knows practice is just that," said Svensson after a final tune-up with Borg on April 22, the day before the match. "All that counts is tomorrow. After so many years gone, we don't expect much, unless Arrese chokes or flips out because he's playing Bjorn Borg. No, I don't think Bjorn can win."
Came the next afternoon, and a tangible electricity swept the terraces of the Monte Carlo Country Club. As Arrese followed his famous elder onto the burnished dirt court overlooking the sea, the crowd rose and roared in appreciation. "It was a very moving moment, one that will stay in my heart forever," said Arrese later. "I see that they want Bjorn back."
But was he? Although Borg exhibited the striped headband, taped hands and bowlegged gait of his glory years, he bore as much resemblance to the player everyone remembered as did the four guys up in the crowd wearing Borg wigs and Borg headbands. What was this powder-puff serve? This halting, half-swing forehand? This scattered slop from the backhand wing? ("I never knew what to do with the ball. I need to play more matches, more points," said the impostor afterward.) This might have been Franchise Durr tuning up for somebody's Team Tennis franchise, but surely it wasn't the impenetrable Borg.
The 5'9", 142-pound Arrese can hardly break an egg with his uncomplicated, soft-ball style. Still, he looked positively Schwarzeneggerian in pounding Borg 6-2, 6-3. While other players were diplomatic—"We can only tell that Bjorn needs more time," said Mats Wilander—perhaps they were laboring under the same delusions as Borg. If there's one thing he doesn't have, it's time. One match was enough to reveal that in his yearning to return, Borg had made three disastrous decisions:
•To play with a copy of his old wood Donnay racket. Today's enlarged, high-tech graphites give players as much as 30% more power. Borg—whose current rackets were custom-made for him by Gray's, an English squash-racket manufacturer, after he couldn't locate enough of the original Donnays—says he had little control with the new ones. But if nine months wasn't enough time to figure that out, something's wrong with his attention span.
•To enter high-profile tournaments right off. Borg says he needs to play more matches. However, by opting to take three more wild-card entries—at the Italian and French Opens and Wimbledon—rather than play exhibitions, smaller tournaments or even on a satellite circuit, he'll probably have only three more matches over the next couple of months.
•Not to solicit help from a sage tennis head who could adapt Borg's style to the modern game. O.K., so Borg hasn't spoken to Bergelin for four years and made no effort to see him when Bergelin arrived in Monte Carlo, somewhat pathetically carrying half a dozen of Borg's old Donnay rackets, which had been gathering dust in his closet. "Maybe we will talk," Bergelin said, not without sadness. "All of us tennis players are funny that way." But why not a younger coach, such as Brett or one of Borg's contemporaries?
Instead, Borg has placed himself in the hands of one Tia Honsai, nè Ron Thatcher, a 79-year-old Welshman and self-proclaimed specialist in the martial arts and in the sleep-inducing massage known as Shiatsu. "The Professor," as Borg calls Honsai, showed up in Monaco talking like a prizefight manager, claiming he knew nothing about tennis and predicting that Borg could win another Wimbledon. Although the Professor had reportedly admonished Berte to stay away, he was accompanied by three women: two ballerinas, named Tanya and Doreen, and a secretary, name unknown, who took dictation while her boss, sitting just 15 feet away from Borg, watched him practice through binoculars. The Professor, who was dressed all in white—except for a blue blazer—can hardly walk because of one broken knee and can hardly hear through his hearing aid, and if those omnipresent zoom lenses are any indication, he has one hell of a time seeing, as well. Nevertheless, on the eve of Borg's dèjà vu debut, he paused to enlighten the international media.
To Swedish radio, after his protègè had lost, Professor Binocs said, "Borg is not upset. He feels sorry for all of you."
To a British journalist who asked if he was a Brit, Honsai said, "I've forgotten."
To a German television commentator who had asked what to do about a bad back, he said, "Give up the wine."
To an American magazine writer who had heard that Ava Gardner and Ingrid Bergman had once been among his disciples, he said, "I have treated the most famous and most toughest and most greatest people in all the world. Who? I can't tell you."
Then, while walking away with a tournament official, the Professor seemed very worried. "Look, James Coburn called me," he said. "He can't do lunch, but can we get him two tickets?"
The sorrowful deeds of the next few days—a tennis player's efforts to find a life again, his wife's attempt to take hers—were yet to come, but doom was already in the salt air above the Mediterranean. Mourning, too. The return of Borg had turned into a tragicomic carnival act starring somebody named Tia Honsai, three or four or five women and one pair of binoculars. A phrase came to French lips: La mer s'est èlevèe avec les pleurs.
The sea has risen with tears.