Supreme athletes are our Apollos and Atalantas. In their youthful beauty and wondrous talent, they shine. Tennis is generally ignored in Britain except for two weeks at the end of June and beginning of July, when Wimbledon becomes a national devotion. Thus the great tennis players, who perform their prodigious feats at the height of England’s summer, glow for us with a peculiar intensity.
In 1972 a young Swede with long, flaxen hair, who wielded his tennis racket like an axe, first came to London. Though he developed his game on slow clay courts, Björn Borg nevertheless won the Junior title on Wimbledon’s fast grass, and four years later claimed the Men’s Championship – the first male player to win both, and the youngest Wimbledon champion of the Open era.
In The Golden Boy of Centre Court Graham Denton recounts Borg’s Wimbledons, match by match, year by year, chapter by chapter. This is quite a challenge – tennis is a simple game, after all, with a limited range of strokes. But if Denton is a modest prose stylist (though anyone who describes the American tennis legend Jimmy Connors as “a bundle of bustling aggression” is no slouch), he has been a tireless, judicious miner in the archives of match reports, interviews and biographies. He is the stringer of other writers’ pearls.
Of young Björn’s raucous teenybopper fans, Peter Wilson wrote: “The squealing and the oohing and the aahing reached such a high pitch that they were almost inaudible to the human ear.” Borg strolled on to court with a rolling walk, “a puzzling side-to-side rocking action”, according to Curry Kirkpatrick, “that is nearly Chaplinesque”.
Borg’s unearthly concentration and calm were evident early on. His blood pressure was 70 over 30, and “he’s been proved”, said Joe Jares, “to have the pulse rate of a corpse”. Yet once he started playing, he blasted topspin winners into the corners of his opponent’s court. One outplayed unfortunate’s task was “like trying to chase shadows in a blackout”. The many quotes are so enjoyable; if the dadaists had only felt for sport, they might have found a purpose for their collage experiments.
Along the way Denton grapples with the riddles of Borg’s career: how did the badly behaved pre-adolescent learn to control his emotions to such a degree? How did he win six titles on the slow French clay and five on Wimbledon’s unpredictable grass – yet not a single US or Australian Open? Why did he retire at 26, just as he reached full physical maturity? But above all, Denton describes Borg’s matches, and it’s a delight to relive them.
I remember watching his Wimbledon semi-final in 1977 against Vitas Gerulaitis while staying with my mother. It was a beautiful day outside, but, entranced, I couldn’t leave the TV room. The two men – friends and practice partners – read each other’s serve, and virtually every point became a gorgeous rally, each player going for the lines and hitting them. “Since my school days I’ve never seen so much chalk flying,” reported Peter Wilson. Denton’s account summons Dan Maskell’s commentary, in what Mark Lawson called his mellifluous Edwardian drawl: “Oh, I say, that’s an absolute dream of a backhand pass from Borg.”
I was a few months younger than Borg, and suspected, mournfully, that I’d never witness such a fine tennis match again. Borg won that Wimbledon and the next three. We became accustomed to the champion with is i magen (“ice in the stomach”), who let out that controlled passion at the final point as, to tumultuous acclaim from the crowd, he dropped to his knees “as though Valhalla had come to earth”.
But then came John McEnroe, the “sulky cherub”, as Lenore Nicklin described him. Some enjoyed the New Yorker’s petulance; others agreed with David Irvine that “the sour taste left by McEnroe’s behaviour pervaded the feast like decaying garlic”. McEnroe had “the look, posture and mannerisms of a man doing something he despises”, wrote Bob Rubin. But he stroked the ball with exquisite skill. In contrast, Borg was “wrapped in a charisma you couldn’t put a finger on”, according to John Lloyd. Many found McEnroe dull.
When Borg and McEnroe finally met at Wimbledon, in the 1980 final, McEnroe took off at full throttle, dragging Borg wide with his extraordinary serve (“As if he is serving round the edge of an imaginary building,” as Clive James put it) and finding angles for his volleys in the outer reaches of Euclidean geometry. He wrapped up the first set in 27 minutes. Borg stole the second set with a single break, then won the third. The fourth went to a legendary tie-break, in which, swapping match- and set-points, each man refused to lose, or let the other win. That single tie-break lasted 22 minutes. McEnroe won it, tying the match at two sets all, and Borg’s will was broken.
Except that it wasn’t. Unfazed (“His concentration is so profound that it is almost visible,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney), Borg rose from his chair and played exemplary tennis, “a picture of relentlessness and grace”, as Mike Lupica put it. He won the final set 8-6, and, Denton tells us, “dropped to his knees in exultation, arching his back so far that his long hair brushed the balding grass”.
Special rivalries are the pinnacle of sport. Contrasting talents goad untapped potential from each other, transmuting before our eyes from competitors into collaborators. Such champions – like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova – meet and “explore new dimensions”, in Mike Lupica’s words. The 1980 Borg-McEnroe final was unmatched (and would remain so until Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal bettered it, incredibly, in 2008). The following year, 1981, they met in the Wimbledon final again. This was a muted affair. McEnroe won in four sets. “When we shook hands,” McEnroe later reflected, “Björn looked oddly relieved.” Later that year Borg more or less permanently retired – burned out, the well of competitiveness depleted, drained of his joy in the game.
Posterity is fickle. Pre-eminent players fade into distant memory. Björn Borg, though – in his Fila kit, headband, red tracksuit top – remains a cultural icon of the Seventies, that funky, restless decade. In his case it’s surely because, as well as his extraordinary talent, he is the embodiment of passion quelled, hidden, held in reserve. “Maybe we will never know what stirs this dispassionate Swede,” wrote Lupica, “what icy reservoirs he calls upon when things look worst. But those reservoirs are there: he is a remarkable athlete.”
Tim Pears’ latest book is “Chemistry and Other Stories” (Bloomsbury)
The Golden Boy of Centre Court
Pitch, 319pp, £20
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us