“My life became such a circus I could’t live with” – interview with Bjorn Borg
interview with Bjorn Borg | Announcing his retirement from professional tennis at the age of 26 after winning five Wimbledon and six Roland Garros titles. A shock for rivals and fans. A relief for Bjorn Borg: “People asking me for photos and autographs was nice at first, but eventually it became unbearable. And that’s why I retired so young.”
“When I arrived at the hotel, there were 100 people waiting for me. When I went to a restaurant, I had 25 photographers all over me. I wanted to have a normal life. Today there still exist that excitement for champions, but they are much more protected. Whereas in my time it was really crazy and that was one of the decisive factors that made me throw in the towel,” says the Swedish tennis player.
Considered one of the most relevant figures in the history of tennis, he has been getting more involved in the public scene of the sport in the last five years thanks to his incorporation as captain of the European Laver Cup team, and also accompanying his son Leo Borg, who at 19 years of age competes in the Futures circuit and some Challengers.
This interview, originally published in French for Tennis Magazine, is a review of his best memories.
The conversation reveals little-explored anecdotes from Borg’s career. Like when John McEnroe was his ball boy in his first match as a pro, when he was disqualified for the bad behavior of his doubles partner Ion Tiriac, or how much he regrets playing a minor tournament instead of the French Open motivated by money. “I was nice to Vilas and let him win that year,” he jokes.
In English and Spanish, the full interview on CLAY.
Interview with Bjorn Borg
– Tell me an anecdote that is not so well known from your time as a professional.
– It was the day of the Roland Garros semifinals in 1980, and I was in the locker room waiting to enter the court to play against (Harold) Solomon, I think. The match before that was between (Jimmy) Connors and (Vitas) Gerulaitis. Vitas won 6-4 in the fifth, came into the locker room and the first thing he did was come up to me, hug me and say, “You’re lucky, you’re going to play me in the final and not Jimmy.” Then I beat Solomon (6-2, 6-2, 6-0) and the next day, as we were close friends, Vitas and I had dinner together and he said to me, laughing, “Hey, you’re going to have a tough match tomorrow!”. He was very happy to have beaten Jimmy and to have reached the French Open final.
Editor’s note: (Borg won the final 6-4, 6-1, 6-2).
– Gerulaitis was certainly a very particular character.
– I’ll tell you another story about my friend Vitas. We played a marathon semi-final at Wimbledon (in 1977) which I won in five sets. The next day I was training in Hurlingham, at a club outside London, in preparation for the final. The day before, Vitas had lost 8-6 in the fifth set, came came to the club and said to me, “Björn, if you need a training partner, I’m always willing!”. I thought about telling him if he didn’t have anything better to do. I don’t know, go on vacation, get depressed, do anything (laughs).
– I go back in time…Do you remember the day you realized you hated loosing?
– It was the day I was born! (laughs). It didn’t matter if it was tennis, board games, badminton, I’ve always hated losing. And… I’ve always loved winning (laughs).
– The day you felt embarrassed on a tennis court.
– I’ve never been embarrassed… Ah, yes, I remember a day I played doubles with Ion Tiriac in Madrid. Against Ilie Nastase and Tom Okker. The match was good, we even had a match point, but the problem was that Tiriac was behaving very badly. So bad that the referee ended up disqualifying us. That was probably the only time I was ever embarrassed on a court. And the only time I was disqualified.
– Your first match on the professional tour.
– US Open 1972 against Roy Emerson. I remember the moment we were walking to the court and I thought, “Wow, that’s Roy Emerson you’re going to play against.” That’s not a small business. He wasn’t playing much anymore, but he was a legend! I lost that game, but you know what the funniest thing is? Guess who was on our court as a ball boy… John McEnroe! He was the one who told me years later. It’s unbelievable.
– Unbelievable. A twist of fate. Then in Båstad you played your first Davis Cup match in 1972. At the age of 15 against a top player, Onny Parun.
– Yes, that’s right, but at the beginning I wasn’t considered to play that match. Shortly before, in Madrid, in the second or third round I beat Jan-Erik Lundqvist in two sets. He was the one who was considered to play Parun. When he saw that match, Lennart Bergelin who was the captain, thought this guy can play. He picked me and I beat Parun, who ended up furious about losing to a kid. Really angry. It’s true that losing to a 15-year-old is not easy to accept, especially when you’re the ninth best player in the world!
– The year you won your first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1974.
– I played in Rome the week before and won the tournament beating (Ilie) Nastase in the final. Then I went back to Stockholm for a couple of days before flying to Paris. And there, in the first round, I played against Frenchman (Jean-François) Caujolle. I knew him well, we had played several times as juniors. He was leading 4-1 in the third set, with two breaks ahead (editor’s note: at that time the first rounds were played to the best of three sets). I finally found the resources to come back and win that match, and then I said to myself: that’s it, I’m back. I thought I had a good chance of winning two or three more matches, but not of going all the way. And yet I beat (Manuel) Orantes in the final after being down two sets to zero. That year I was alone in Paris. Only the Swedish journalists kept me company. After winning the final, I asked one of them from the Expressen newspaper, who was a friend: “What are we doing tonight? I won in Paris, why don’t we go to the Eiffel Tower?”. And that’s what we did. We went up to the top and had a wonderful dinner to celebrate my victory.
– The day you realized you were famous.
– After winning the Davis Cup against New Zealand. There was a lot of excitement. That’s when it all started. It was nice, people recognized me, they wanted autographs, photos… Yes, I liked it at the beginning, but in the long run much less. And that’s why I retired so young. The lasts years it became unbearable. During Wimbledon or Roland Garros, when I arrived at the hotel, there were 100 people waiting for me. When I arrived at a restaurant, there were 25 photographers all over me. I felt it was not funny. It was funny in a way, but then I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to have a normal life. And I know some people will think I’m crazy, but it became such a circus that I said to myself, “I can’t go on living like this. I loved tennis, but I didn’t want that life anymore. Of course, today there is so much excitement for the champions, but they are much more protected. Whereas in my day it was really crazy and that was one of the deciding factors that made me throw in the towel.
– Let’s move on to Wimbledon. We have heard so much about your first victory over Nastase in 1976, the fantastic final in 1980 against McEnroe… But during these five years of consecutive successes, you came close to losing several times in the first rounds. Against Victor Amaya in 1978, or against Vijay Amritraj the following year… What memories do you keep of these escapes?
– Before Wimbledon I didn’t play any tournament on grass. I didn’t play in Queens. After Paris I went to England for a fortnight to train on grass, but I didn’t compete. My coach and I knew every year that the first two rounds would be dangerous and I almost lost those three matches. But I knew that if I survived the first two rounds, then I would get into a rhythm, feel more comfortable on grass and then I would be difficult to beat. I only have good memories.
– Before winning Wimbledon you were considered a clay court specialist, but not many people believed in your chances on grass. And when you won in 1976, many people said it was because it was so hot during the whole fortnight that the very dry grass conditions favored you. But the next year it wasn’t like that and you became a two-time champion.
– Exactly, I remember it well. People thought I could play well on grass, but not that I could win Wimbledon. And in 1976 it was 35 degrees for the whole event, which made the ball bounce more. So when I won, people said it was due to those exceptional conditions. “We’ll see how it does when it rains and the grass is wet,” they said. The following year, in 1977, I missed the French Open because I decided to go play the World Team Tennis in the United States. By the way, in doing so I was being nice to Guillermo (Vilas) by letting him win in Paris (laughs). And when I got to Wimbledon, the weather was horrible. It rained every day. But when I won beating Jimmy in the final, that’s when people started talking about the guy who knows how to play on grass.
– Is curious you chose to play in the United States instead of Roland Garros 1977. Something unthinkable in these days. Do you regret it?
– I had a long discussion with Lennart, my coach, and I asked him, “Do you think I should sign up to play this team competition instead of Paris?” He was inflexible, he said I had to play Paris no matter what, then take a break and play Wimbledon, like every year. But I didn’t take his advice because I was simply offered a lot of money. Of course, looking back, I realize I should never have made that decision. But at the time I was attracted by the money. And I remember watching the French Open from afar. I saw Guillermo beat (Brian) Gottfried in the final, and it hurt a little bit.
– And do you remember that day when you decided to answer Swedish journalists only in English at the press conference in Stockholm? It sounded strange…
– Yes, I did it because they were breaking my balls (laughter). It was 1980, the year I beat John (McEnroe) in the final. I was coming from Tokyo to play the Stockholm Open, and as soon as I arrived they started busting my balls… That year I didn’t go to press conferences all week, I didn’t go until after I beat John in the final, and I decided to speak only in English to annoy them.
– Despite celebrating titles at the Eiffel Tower by having dinner with a journalist friend, you generally had a difficult relationship with the Swedish press.
– Yes, but… I think they liked me. They wrote about me every day for years. Our relationship became strained the day I moved to Monaco in 1974. I had become an easy target, and there was a sense of “You must not leave Sweden. You want more money, you don’t want to pay taxes, it’s not right, and so on.” I was a headache for them, they were looking for something, and they found it when I left Sweden. But on the other hand they wanted me. I know they loved me. I have a lot of good memories with a lot of Swedish journalists. Sometimes we had a good time together.
– You decided to stop playing tennis pretty young. Decades from that day, how do you feel about it?
– It was in 1981. That year I won the French Open and lost the Wimbledon final and the US Open against McEnroe. After Wimbledon I was in Stockholm, and that day we went to a restaurant with Lennart and some friends. And there I said to myself that I didn’t want this life anymore. And I remember Lennart’s eyes popped out when I told him. He had already sensed something. He could tell that I wasn’t being myself. He was disappointed. He said, “Come on, give it another five years.” If I had been motivated, I could have won other important titles. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t. Seeing his look of surprise and his disappointment was very hard for me.
– Then you wanted to come back in 1991.
– (laughs) Yes, I wanted to come back because I was bored. I tried other things in life, some successful and some not. But I wanted to get involved in tennis again. And probably the decision to go straight back to Monte Carlo when I hadn’t played a single match before wasn’t the wisest way. But the best thing that could have happened to me was that two years later, Connors started his own senior tour in the United States. And that was ideal for me, to be back with Connors, McEnroe, Vilas, Gomez and the others, and to get back to the tournament atmosphere that I had missed so much after all. I was happy. I did found my place.
– How did you feel the day Rafael Nadal broke your record at Roland Garros?
– I watched all his matches in Paris. My wife and I have been there so many times. Rafa it’s incredible. Roger and Rafa are incredible, probably the two best of all time. I was very happy that he beat my record. His clay-court game is unbelievable. It’s a great opportunity for me to have been with them at the Laver Cup. I like to hear their stories, what they want to change in the rules of tennis, or whatever. For me it’s a joy to spend time with them. Tennis is so different today than it was in my days. And I’m happy to see them play all the time.
– What about when your son told you he wanted to be a professional tennis player?
– He never told me. He played and I knew it. When I saw him traveling and playing tournaments, I realized he wanted to be a good player. And all my wife Patricia and I can do is support him, whatever his ambitions are in tennis or anything else. He knows how to handle pressure very well. Of course, I don’t coach him. He has his own team, I support him like a father. Sometimes, rarely but it happens, he comes to me for advice and I am happy to guide him as best I can. Sometimes my wife and I go to watch him play, often very tense on the court. But we are happy because he enjoys himself.
– And your feelings when you passed the six-decade mark?
– Turning 60…. is scary. Even today I still ask myself what happened, and soon I’ll be 90! What is this? So yes, I’m a little scared of getting older, although I know it happens to all of us. No, I’m not happy to have turned 60, and to be close to 70. But I have a great life. I have a great family, great kids, but the idea of getting older scares me, I can’t deny it.