As Rafael Nadal prepares to win the Wimbledon 2012 title, and once again surpass fellow rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, the tennis world is reminded of other legends who left their legacies for all times.
Indeed, the spectacular success of Nadal at the French Open rekindled memories of Bjorn Borg, the man who was Nadal’s forefather on clay, but who rose into tennis’s royal pantheon on grass.
Nadal and Borg are forever linked and never more than now. Nadal looks to replicate Borg’s hallowed double dose of French-Wimbledon wins in the same year for the third time.
They are thirty years apart in age and accomplishments, but besides their shared totals of 11 Grand Slams, their total domination of Roland Garros and their fame at Wimbledon, Nadal and Borg are strikingly similar in how they came to be two of the greatest players of all time.
Borg, according to a lengthy profile by Tim Pears, “was not blessed with abundant talent.”
Instead, at nine years old, he took an oversized racket, a gift from his father, and practiced time and again to curl his wrists and create unusual spin when the coaches of his time discouraged this breach of tennis fundamentals.
Naturally right-handed, Nadal at 11 years old, with the guidance of his Uncle Toni, also developed his unusual gift by learning to play as a left-hander. This defiance of convention would perhaps become his most important deviance in becoming a modern legend.
Borg was such a marvel, even writers revered his pioneering topspin. Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated, who profiled Borg in several features, wrote in 1981 of Borg’s topspin as that “blazing, special spin,” as if it were some magical art that only he could possess.
Nadal’s spin, which has been documented as the fastest spinning ball ever hit, with as much as 4,900 revolutions per minute (about twice as much spin as the average player today) is not simply topspin, but also a sideways whirl, like the break on a cut fastball.
There are many stories that detail the countless hours of practice Borg put into tennis. Even while John McEnroe tuned up at Queens or participated in doubles to scratch his competitive itch, Borg had his own practice regimens on the grass with coaches and partners.
Most of this was Borg’s obsessive attention practicing his balance and split step the precise instant his opponent revealed his hitting directions. Borg wanted to get to every ball and believed he could always be the last one to hit in the confines of the court.
Nadal also learned to practice with legendary intensity. Cynthia Gorney quoted tennis instructor Jose Higueras, who once coached Jim Courier among others, as saying, “When you see him practice, it’s pretty spectacular. Every ball he hits with the same intensity and power. Every day, it’s like it’s going to be the last practice of his life.”
Nadal’s footwork and defensive prowess have changed tennis. More balls, longer rallies and lengthier matches are on display. Without footwork, a player is nothing.
When Wimbledon commenced, Borg determined he would not shave until he lost. This meant that by the final, he was bearded and scruffy, which is often the image of how he is depicted and remembered.
Nadal is also scruffy or unshaven, as if he can’t make up his mind about his appearance, or if he's too preoccupied to worry about this detail.
There is no doubt that Borg’s Viking regalness and Nadal’s chiseled biceps create a similar profile of intimidation, through their stoic fierceness and appearances.
In his winning years at Wimbledon, Borg always checked into the same hotel to camp out and practice. He stayed in with his circle, ordered room service, and drove to the courts by the same route.
On court, Borg could seemingly ignore pressure by fidgeting between points. Tim Pears reported that Borg would tug at his headband, blow on his fingers, play with his necklace or straighten his racket strings, and it was this routine that allowed him simplify each point.
Likewise, Nadal’s famous routines are ritual details. He places his two recovery bottles the same way. He towels off face-to-shoulders and left-to-right. He is deliberate in wiping at his hair and tugging at his shorts before eventually delivering a serve.
Does this obsessive attention to their preparation and routine make them legends? They would be great anyway, but its competitive advantage may be more psychological. Other players were aware of their stability. It’s as if Borg and Nadal were saying, “I keep playing the same way and you will not break me.”
It’s no coincidence that, moreso than other players, Borg and Nadal can shrug off bad shots or an opponent’s momentum. They just go back to work. Pressure does not overwhelm them, at least externally.
All of which can be very frustrating to another great opponent. In the 1976 Wimbledon final, Borg was undisturbed by Ilie Nastase’s tactics, including a moment he deliberately tried to hit Borg with a ball. Borg just stared back, went to work and won in straight sets.
“I used to call him the Martian,” Nastase said later, as reported in Pear’s article.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have both found it difficult to overcome the implacable Nadal. Federer’s French Open futility versus Nadal found no escape. Djokovic admitted that he had to gain confidence to beat Nadal.
With Nadal back in the swing of his game, he will be tough to overcome, let alone be defeated.
Borg’s early success and style brought detractors. Even star player John Newcombe said Borg’s crazy wrist action and grind-it-out style would cause him to be injured and suffer burnout within a couple years.
Once Borg became BORG, fans and rivals began to criticize him for being formulaic or “cautious.” They resented that he stuck to his strategy of staying on the baseline and outlasting them ball after ball. If their games could not force Borg to come in, they hoped their words would.
Nadal has experienced parallel criticisms with his similar style for winning. Fans that support other players often minimize clay-court tennis as being something less than “the way it’s supposed to be played.”
But while the complaints circulate, Nadal keeps winning, and now is ready for another run…on grass.
Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year from 1978-1980. It’s an absurdly amazing accomplishment for the man who honed his game on high-bouncing clay to come back on the fast, low-bouncing grass and win against a field of serve-and-volley tennis.
Borg’s accomplishment was not replicated once, until Nadal defeated Federer at the 2008 Wimbledon classic. A year later, Federer followed up the feat with his own double. Then Nadal did it again in 2010.
Until his breakthrough in 2008, it was considered a near-impossible feat in today’s tennis. Nadal not only broke this mold, but could match Borg’s double for a third time.
And he has the confidence in knowing it can be done.
For all their wonderful symmetry, Borg and Nadal also faced their greatest tennis challenges by age 25. While Borg had failed to win the U.S. Open in four finals appearances, his lock on Wimbledon was suddenly broken by John McEnroe in 1981.
A few months later, after losing to McEnroe, Borg left the U.S. Open before its final ceremony and quit tennis. Questions have always persisted as to the nature of his retirement, but in 1982 Chuck Mulling of the Gainesville Sun quoted Borg who said, "I'd played 10 or 11 years without a break and it was time to get away from it all."
Nadal met the same career crisis through three consecutive defeats to Novak Djokovic in three straight Slam finals. Weaker mortals would have perished, and even as recent as a couple months ago, writers and fans added pieces to his obituary.
But Nadal got up off the canvas, won four clay-court tournaments and rides into Wimbledon ready to return to dominance, hoping the next few years will keep adding trophies to the mantelpiece.
With all due respect to Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal has moved ahead.