Best Tennis Player of All Time: Bjorn Borg

Donald FincherAnalyst IJuly 6, 2008

Don't get me wrong.  I like Rafael Nadal ok.  He's growing on me.  He at least seems like he is trying to live up to Roger Federer's off the court stellar behavior.  He's a little brash and too much like a charging bull for my taste but he's like-able enough.  So it is with no ill-will toward him that I make this statement after watching the 2008 version of the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon Final.  Roger Federer beat Roger Federer today.

Federer as much as said so for those who were reading between the lines in his post match interview when he said that he wished he didn't have so many unforced errors in the first two sets because then things could have been "different."  Different, in this case, meant a different player (himself) would have won the match.  The most telling stat in today's match was the Roger only broke one serve but had nearly 20 opportunities.  He never breaks at that small of a ratio.  Two better played critical points (one in set one and one in set two) would have delivered the match to Roger in three sets given that he won the third anyway in a tie-breaker.

But all of this got me thinking that, now that the talk of Roger being the greatest ever is going to calm way down, just who is the greatest ever?  And I think that player is unequivocally Bjorn Borg.  But I realize that before I can prove that point, it is necessary to remove Pete Sampras as an obstacle to that destination.  And that is fairly easily done.

If you look at tennis over the last 35 years, you see duos or trios of dominant players during certain periods.  During the mid-seventies to mid-eighties you had Borg, Connors, McEnroe and others with new talent coming along at a rapid pace because tennis was enjoying a heyday of sorts back then.  The women's side had Chris Evert and Martina Navritolova during that period too so both the men's and women's side were interesting which brought a lot of new talent to the game.  Then, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, you had Becker, Edburg, and Lendl as well as a few others that were capable of winning tournaments (as opposed to only reaching quarterfinals).

But after the decline of this trio, there weren't many obstacles in the way of Pete Sampras.  He was kind of like a kid with his own playground.  Agassi was a year and a half older and much more prone to injuries meaning that he was in decline already as Sampras was peaking.  That's not to say that Andre didn't have some great moments even later in his career but it was only when his health cooperated which, unfortunately for him, didn't seem to be near as often as he would have liked.  And even though Agassi did have some big wins to beat other players, Sampras just seemed to "have his number" as sometimes happens between players or teams.  And besides Agassi, Sampras really didn't play against any of the "greats," at least not while they were anywhere near their primes.

The same could be said about Federer except I believe that Nadal is proving to be one of the greats and may be the greatest clay court player ever.  Roger has lost to Nadal 4 straight times at the French and 3 times in the finals.  Given that Roger could therefore be called the 2nd best player on clay right now, I think Roger would already have won more Slams against the "non-greats" than Sampras won if Nadal had not been around to be an obstacle on clay at the French.  I think most who follow tennis even remotely would agree with that statement.  And if that is true (that Federer would already have more Slams than Sampras if he wasn't staring at the greatest clay court player ever each year at the French), then Sampras isn't even better than Federer so he can't be the greatest ever.

So, why is Borg the best player to have played the game?

  • For starters, the Wimbledon Open era record of 5 straight titles that he shares with Federer is still intact and now probably will be for a while given that Roger couldn't push it to 6 this year.
  • And he won an unbelievable 6 total French Opens (something Sampras couldn't even do once and he wasn't even playing Nadal).
  • He is the only player of the Open Era to have won Wimbledon and the French Open in the same season more than once (he did it three straight times).
  • He has 11 Slam titles which only took 27 tournaments to claim which is an all-time leading win percentage in Slams of 41%.  To compare apples to apples, Sampras won 14 Slam titles but it took a whopping 52 tournaments to do it (27%) and Federer has won 12 Slam titles which has taken him 36 tournaments (33%).  And Borg was doing it against greater competition.
  • The reason Borg only played in 27 Slam tournaments is partially because he only played one Australian Open.  The Australian Open used to be at the end of the season.  He competed in it his first year on the circuit and then decided that the break before the following season was more important.  He vowed never to play it again unless it was possible for him to win a Calendar Slam (all 4 in one year).  Had he played in those other 8 Australian Opens during his career, he would probably would be sitting on the most Slams titles right now given his Slams win ratio.
  • Also, Sampras career spanned 12 years (1990-2002) and Federer's has spanned 10 years so far.  Borg walked away after the US Open in 1981 after only a 9 year career.  Given that his resting heart rate during his tennis years was a stunningly low 35 beats per minute, he was certainly fit enough to play for a couple of more years.  He just admitted to being tired of the grind and ready to move on to the next phase of life.  Had he played another year or two, he would have won some more tournaments.  Combine these projected wins with the missed Australian Open projected wins and you have a player that probably would be sitting on an uneclipseable 16-20 Slam titles.
  • Another unmatched achievement is the record 89.8% Grand Slam match winning percentage (141–16).
  • In 2008, ESPN.com asked tennis analysts, writers, and former players to build the perfect Open era player. Borg was the only player mentioned in all five categories -- defense, footwork, intangibles, physical fitness, and mental toughness -- with his mental game and footwork singled-out as the best in Open era history.

While great defense, excellent footwork, physical fitness, mental toughness, and  intangibles are all vital to todays game as well as yesteryear's, some question how well Borg would do if he were playing now instead of then.  Those people say that Borg excelled in an era of wooden rackets and that he might not perform that well if he was instead a player of today given that the pace of the game has quickened and he won so many matches due to patience and outlasting opponents on long rallies.  I will admit that if you watch tennis games of days gone by that they make today's matches look more like racquetball with players going for "kill shots" or "winners" all the time rather than having long rallies.  To that, I say that if you were to ask most tennis players whether it would be more difficult for a patient player who seeks out their opponents weaknesses and keeps the point alive long enough to get an error out of their opponent to speed up or a fast player who goes for winners almost immediately after serving to slow down and have long rallies, I believe most would say the patient player could adapt much easier.  That's because the "kill shot" players either make or miss the kill shot and don't allow themselves to get in long rallies.  Therefore, they aren't used to it and the errors would go sky high if they had 3 minute rallies on every point.  But a patient player who was asked to make a few more passing shots or serve and volleys could easily do that because those are already in their "bag of shots" anyway.  In fact, the patient, long rally player would arguably be in better shape (as evidenced by the heart rate) and they would get much more polished at their footwork (due to the sheer use of it) and would therefore have another couple of edges on today's players.

It's really too bad that Borg didn't play the Australian Opens and left tennis early.  In doing so, he left the door open for players that aren't his equal to be mentioned as the greatest ever.  But after reading this, you now know better.