Tennis' Old Guard
A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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"Yes, it is, it is Borg."
"God, he looks good."
"I haven't seen him in person. Ever."
Borg and Connors shake hands with the cordiality of two sales reps opening up a booth at a trade show. Connors inquires about the flight from Sweden. Borg nods. "It is always so good to see Jimmy," Borg says later. "So much history we have, so much tennis." Connors starts walking off the gritty clay court. Jimbo's not going to hit after all. He's climbing up into the TV tower for a series of satellite interviews all over the country. Borg will practice with Vilas.
A red-haired woman politely asks for Borg's autograph. Borg's still wearing those ultra-cool, cushy Tretorn shoes he popularized in the '70s. "Very comfortable," he says with a grin.
As Connors was Andre Agassi's ancestor in the hype department, so did Borg precede Agassi in the heartthrob category. Borg's blond locks and cool manner made him the original "Teen Angel," mobbed by young girls the world over. While his topspinning baseline game initially struck many as severely limited, its narrow tunnel of possibility proved fortifying. Unforced errors were not part of Borg's vocabulary. When necessary, he'd hammer a big serve, whip a return or strike an angled passing shot. "Ice water in his veins," was the phrase popularized by his coach, Lennart Bergelin.
The price Borg paid for being an angel was no freedom to be a human. So much of Borg had been devoted to tennis that he had nothing left to give--to the fans or himself. Emotionally spent, unwilling to reclimb the mountain after McEnroe took over the number one spot in '81, Borg picked up his toys and became tennis' Rip Van Winkle.
The rumors of Borg's years in exile are endless. Lots of money, lots of girls, lots of hedonism, as if he was making up for all those repressed years when he would never express himself with his racket or mouth. No one knows exactly how much energy was expended in what direction, but now, Borg has realized that "when I stepped away from the game, I thought I wouldn't like to play tennis again. I think I missed tennis without realizing it.
"I don't like to lose, I want to win all the time," he says. In the summer of 1995, he earned his first Nuveen Tour crown, vanquishing Connors, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. "I like the Nuveen Tour," says Borg. "I like playing with my generation. The atmosphere is great. The competition is great. Tennis is fun." The angel has returned to earth--at least for now (throughout the '96 season rumors were floating that Borg was again feeling burnout and devoting his time to off-court pursuits).
Forty-five minutes later, Borg and Vilas are sweating heavily. Connors walks out of the TV booth, smiling approvingly at his drenched buddies. Turning to a fan, he says, "The guys didn't realize at first how much work it was going to take to get in shape for this tennis. Now everybody's starting to grind it out that much more." Pointing his index finger to Borg and Vilas, he calls, "See you guys at the lunch."
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