This article was going to be my payment for a bet on the NCAA Men's National Title Game had I lost. Though North Carolina rescued me, I decided to write this, anyway, for Joan and Rob. I have had plenty of time to prepare, so I hope they enjoy it!
Sweden has produced as much world class tennis talent as any other country in the world, with the possible exception of the U. S. and Australia. Of course, those nations are much, much larger than the tiny Scandinavian islet of Sweden.
Perhaps the first great Swede tennis legend was Sven Davidson, inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007 along with Pete Sampras and others. Davidson was the first Swede to win the French Championships (now the French Open) in 1957.
Davidson won 26 Swedish Championships and played in 85 Davis Cup matches, compiling a stellar 62-23 overall mark, including 23-9 in doubles. The doubles wins remain the Swedish record to this day.
The next great Swede, of course, was none other than the resplendent Bjorn Borg. The precocious phenom was so stunningly talented that he was representing Sweden in Davis Cup while he was still competing in juniors’ tournaments!
Borg was a professional for a relatively short period of time—nine years—before retiring at the tender age of 26, taking with him hardware from six French Open and five consecutive Wimbledon titles. He won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam singles tournaments he entered and was victorious in an astounding 89.8 percent of his singles matches in Slams.
Both of those incredible marks remain records during the open era of men’s tennis.
Stefan Edberg was the next great Swedish male prodigy. From 1983 to 1996, he carried the torch of his tiny Scandinavian home country admirably, carving out a Hall of Fame career on the strength of six Slams in singles, three doubles’ Slams, 42 career titles and a win at the Olympic Games when tennis was a demonstration sport (1984).
Edberg’s career degenerated quickly in the early 1990s, leaving Sweden to search for yet another standard-bearer in men’s tennis. Quickly, a seemingly suitable heir to the throne was anointed: one Karl Johan Thomas Enqvist.
Enqvist, after all, had shot through the juniors like a howitzer, attaining the No. 1 junior ranking while seizing the 1991 Australian and Wimbledon junior titles and reaching the finals at Roland Garros in both 1990 and ’91.
Fast-forwarding to his career achievements, Enqvist won 19 ATP titles, $ 10,461,641 in purse money, and three ATP Masters Series wins (Cincinnati, 2000; Stuttgart, 1999; and Paris, 1996).
He reached as high as No. 4 in the world (1999).
But he never won a Slam. He made it all the way to the finals of the Australian in 1999, falling to Yevgeny Kafelnikov on the hard courts of Melbourne, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-6 (1).
Even worse, beside the one time he made the final Down Under, Enqvist’s best results in the Slams were the Fourth Round at the French and the U. S. Opens, and the Quarters at Wimbledon.
Not exactly up to the standards of Davidson, Borg or Edberg.
This brings us to the subject under consideration: What prevented Thomas Enqvist from performing better at the Big Four?
There are four critical components of tennis performance that are telling: athletic/shot-making ability, competition, injuries, and mental toughness. We will consider all four and attempt to divine where Enqvist was deficient.
Enqvist had superior athletic ability and tennis skills. He was, to use a hackneyed expression, “The total package.”
Thomas was one of the earliest men cut from the 21st Century prototype: tall (6’3”), lanky (195 pounds) but sinewy, with pop on his serve and potent ground strokes from either wing. His forehand was huge, and his two-hand backhand was a legitimate weapon, not just a slice or Sabatini-like moon ball.
Enqvist certainly had the shot-making ability we would expect to find in a man capable of winning a Slam event. He didn’t have the best top-spin shots in the world, and he relied extensively on his power, so it is understandable that he could not break through at Roland Garros. Not winning at Oz or Flushing Meadows is a bit more mystifying.
His failure to win Slams was certainly not due to poor athleticism or faulty ground strokes.
Thomas came along at a bad time for a big serving right-hander. When he was active, there were scads of men fitting that basic description roaming tennis courts of the world.
Enqvist had the misfortune of competing with Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Tim Henman, Lleyton Hewitt, Thomas Johansson, Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten, Richard Krajicek, Mark Philippoussis, Patrick Rafter, and Pete Sampras.
All of them, save Henman and Philippoussis, won at least one major. Only Chang and perhaps Kuerten were not considered big hitters.
It is fair to say that Enqvist faced arguably the greatest talent pool in tennis history. His failure to win the 1999 final in Oz short-circuited his best chance to take a Slam.
Enqvist was, to put it kindly, injury-prone.
Tennis is a very precise sport. The difference between a wide serve and one that clips the “T” is merely inches, an almost imperceptible flick of the wrist.
Enqvist battled injuries so much that he was never 100 percent for more than a few weeks at a time from 1994 till his retirement, excepting 1996 and 1999.
He had surgery on each knee in 1994; a foot injury in 1995; a left ankle injury in 1997; surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle in both 1998 and 2000; a persistent left foot injury throughout 2000; right rotator cuff surgery in December 2000; did not play after August of 2002 due to right shoulder inflammation; had right shoulder surgery in 2003; and endured repeated ankle, back, and right shoulder maladies from 2004 until his retirement in April of 2006.
That didn’t leave him enough time to properly prepare for the mental and physical grind of the four Grand Slam events.
Of all the most popular sports today, your gray matter probably counts the most in tennis.
Fitness, foot speed, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, speed and stamina will take a young tennis player skyrocketing through the juniors’ rankings. A heavy topspin forehand, booming serve and reliable backhand combine to make for a formidable package.
It means nothing unless a player is mentally strong.
This is at once the most difficult attribute to measure, particularly when we consider how few times Thomas advanced to the pressure rounds—the semis or the finals—of Slams.
The one such occasion—the 1999 Australian Open final against Kafelnikov—tells a grim and unflattering story about Enqvist’s mettle.
Enqvist was known for his clean, proficient game. Yet, he double-faulted seven times (the final occurrence on match point), and committed 62 unforced errors. Kafelnikov—no disrespect intended—did not win that final so much as Enqvist lost it.
In the final analysis, Karl Johan Thomas Enqvist faced superior opposition, but with his physical skills and superior shot-making, he should have won a Slam event. Injuries and questionable mental toughness combined to keep him from cashing in.