Put them in a line up, shoulder to shoulder. At first glance, these two men appear to have nothing in common. Swede Bjorn Borg—the legendary clay court artist of the 70s and 80s—possessed rock star looks that made him a fan favorite enhanced by long blond hair, deep blue eyes, and an icy-cool demeanor.
In contrast, Spain’s Rafael Nadal, the current clay court king, is blessed with swarthy good looks, bulging muscles, and a heart-melting smile countered by a fiery, pugilistic demeanor on the tennis court.
On the surface they clash like Fire and Ice .
The differences are easy to gauge. Additionally, Nadal stands taller by two inches. Nadal plays left-handed, Borg, right-handed. One speaks Spanish and the other Swedish.
But both play an unyielding style of tennis that effectively employs a deceptive serve as well as a deadly two-handed backhand. To say that their careers have followed similar paths is understating the obvious.
From 1973-81, Borg played in eight French Open Championships, winning six finals—four consecutively. He skipped the event in 1977. The Swede remains 6-for-8 in attempts on the red clay at Stade Roland Garros. His winning percentage there is 96.08 (49-2). Borg was 25 when he played in his last French Open.
To date, Nadal has played in six consecutive French Open Championships, 2005-2010, winning five of them, four consecutively. His winning percentage is 97.44 [38-1] at Stade Roland Garros. Nadal just turned 24 during the finals of the 2010 French Open.
At Wimbledon, Borg won five consecutive championships from 1976-80, losing his last match at the All-England Club in 1981 to John McEnroe. The Swede played at Wimbledon for nine consecutive years, from 1973-81 winning 5-of-9 with a winning percentage of 92.73 (51-4). Borg won back-to-back French Open/ Wimbledon titles from 1978-80 for three consecutive years.
Nadal has played in six Wimbledon Championships from 2003-10, missing 2004 and 2009. He won two championships in 2008 and 2010, with a winning percentage of 87.87 (29-4). The Majorcan has won two back-to-back French-Open/ Wimbledon titles, although not consecutively.
It took Nadal five tries before he won his first Wimbledon title. Borg won his first Championship at the All-England Club on his fourth try—then the Swede settled in for five in a row.
There is a 30 year difference in their ages—both born the first week in June, Nadal in 1986 and Borg in 1956. Borg enjoyed his first success on clay, winning the French Open at the age of 18. Nadal also won his first major on the clay in Paris in 2005 at age 19.
As comparable as their careers seem on clay and on grass, there is one area where Nadal is hoping not to parallel Borg—that is in Borg’s inability to win a title in New York at the U.S. Open Championship. So far, Nadal appears right in line to share Borg’s heartache in the Big Apple.
Here are the numbers—read them and weep if you believe in reading tea leaves or warts on the head of a toad.
Borg played the U.S. Open nine consecutive years from 1973-81—essentially walking away from Flushing Meadows in 1981 and pulling the plug on his tennis career. During his nine-year run at the title, the Swede finished once in the second round, twice in the fourth round, once as a quarterfinalist, once as a semifinalist, and four times as a finalist—never once did he win the title.
Nadal has played the U.S. Open seven consecutive years since 2003. This year serves as his eighth attempt to make it to the final, in the hopes of winning the championship. During his seven year run at the title, Nadal has finished twice in round two, once in round three, once in round four, once in the quarterfinals, and twice in the semifinals. So far the Majorcan has never been a finalist in this event.
While it is not possible to compare players of different generations, there does seem to be a predictable parallel between these two players who excelled first on clay and then on grass, relishing the natural surfaces while faltering on the the artificial ones.
In this instance we must dismiss any discussion of the Australian Open.
Back in the days when Borg played, the Australian Open was played on grass courts. Besides that, it was the last tournament of the year, played in December. When Borg didn’t win in New York, he never bothered to play in Australia because his interest was in winning a calendar year slam, not in collecting individual slam titles.
Therefore, Borg only played the event once in 1974 and was dismissed in the fourth round. After that, he never bothered.
It does bode well, however, that Nadal has won at the Australian Open, showing that he can win on the hard courts and he did so by defeating his main rival, Roger Federer, in the 2009 final in another five-set marathon.
This year heading into New York, Nadal is riding high. He has both the Wimbledon Championship and the French Open trophy in his hip pocket, waiting only to make it a sweep by taking the title in New York.
The fates seem to favor Nadal, because it seems Federer is limping into New York, and the man who summarily dismissed him last year in the semifinals, Juan Martin del Potro, is recovering from wrist surgery and will not be on hand to defend his U.S. Open championship of 2009.
Nadal has dominated everyone else on tour.
This win would give Nadal a career slam and pull him to within one of equalling Bill Tilden at 10 grand slam singles titles. Certainly Nadal has the will and determination to win. It is another parallel with Borg. The Swede had nerves of steel when it came to winning. It took the novel and inspired play of McEnroe to throw Borg off his game.
Unlike Borg, Nadal will stay the course and never quit as long as his knees allow. He wishes to equal his chief rival, Federer by winning on all surfaces and dominating tennis in a similar fashion. That will all commence if he can win in New York.
Unfortunately for the Majorcan, John McEnroe has given him the nod, saying he thinks Nadal will win in New York. Talk about the "kiss of death!" Surely Nadal is saying, "Please keep your prognostications to yourself, Johnny Mac. I can win this all by myself."
Also unlike Borg, Nadal will storm the Big Apple with supreme confidence, something Borg could never muster in a city where tennis was played under lights with noisy fans and New Yorkers rooting for their American boys.
For once, Nadal will be the odds on favorite coming in.