Remembering Bjorn "The Ice" Borg

Mike AllderContributor IFebruary 22, 2009

The sport of tennis enjoyed immense popularity during the 70's and into the late 80's. Public courts were rarely empty and, when you were able to snag a court, playing time would inevitably be limited to less than an hour.

Other players would arrive and take your court after your 45-minute time slot ended. If you wanted to play longer, you had to re-sign the chalk board and wait for your turn again, sometimes an hour or more.

Players that played on public courts were of all skill levels and the least-skilled players always seemed to interrupt other games in progress because of their inability to keep their tennis balls off the other courts.

I always fancied myself a good tennis player, but the truth is, I was not. I could wail away at the baseline pretty good, but my net game left a lot to be desired. I lost my points mostly during rallies at the net.

Because of the popularity of the sport at a grass root level like this, it stands to reason that Professional tennis was huge during this time. I tried to fashion my tennis game after the great Swedish player Bjorn Borg.

During the 70's, Borg was the greatest tennis player on the planet. Some would argue  the greatest of all time. Standing on the baseline with his long blond hair tucked under his ever-present headband, Bjorn Borg was a tennis machine.

Borg always seemed to be the ultimate in sportsmanship, compared to his archrivals John McEnroe, Illi Nastase, and Jimmy Connors, who forever brought reproach on the game as well as themselves.

Borg, with his two-fisted backhand wrapped around the extended grip of his Donnay Allwood racquet, dominated Wimbledon for five straight years in the late 70s. I always watched Borg whenever he would play on television and I was mystified when he never could win the U.S. Open.

He lost in the finals many a year and could never explain his inability to capture New York in September. The final of the U.S. Open was always played in the late afternoon in early September and fans to this day say Borg just could not win under the lights.

Maybe it was true. After all, by the time the men's final had reached match point, it was evening in New York and the stadium lights were at their brightest.

During my employment at Collegiate Sports, I had the rare opportunity to see Borg play up close. One of my fellow workers got a pair or tickets to watch Borg’s match during the Canadian Open up at York University in 1981. The seats were in the Seagram’s corporate box, which was situated directly behind Borg’s chair for the match.

I was sitting within 10 feet of the greatest tennis player in the universe at the time. Borg was so cool under pressure and never seemed to get rattled during the match. He would towel off between games and sip his Swedish sports drink without a care in the world under a big umbrella while sitting right in front of me.

It was extremely hot that afternoon, and I do not even remember seeing a bead of sweat on Bjorn’s forehead. I guess the Collegiate Sports headband that he would always wear in Canada kept him cool and dry.

I will always remember that unforgettable unique sound of pro tennis as the ball struck each player’s tightly strung racquet during the lengthy baseline rallies. It was long before the power racquets became so dominant and in my opinion, ruined the game. The game was more finesse and skill back then and no one had more of either than Borg.

Borg would win that match in two straight sets as he knocked Tom Guillikson out of the tournament that afternoon. It was a great way to spend a sunny day in August and I will never forget the excitement of seeing a true sports legend play live.

For years, I emulated Borg when I played, and although I never had the long flowing hair, I did wear the same style shirts and a gold rope chain around my neck. I used the Donnay Borg Pro racquet and I developed a pretty good two-fisted backhand passing shot, just like my tennis hero.

Sadly, Borg retired from pro tennis the year after at age 26. He left the game on top leaving the world to wonder just how much greater he could have been. As the 80's gave way to the 90's, tennis began to dwindle in popularity and it became rare to see the public courts used for anything but road hockey games or just lying empty.  

I will always remember that hot sunny afternoon back in 1981 when I saw arguably the greatest tennis player in my lifetime. So cool and collected and, thanks to Collegiate, dry under pressure, it’s no wonder that he was known as the “Ice Borg.”