Bjorn Borg Finally Lets The Good Times Roll
In senior tour, tennis great finds the fun he missed
At the height of his tennis career in 1983, Bjorn Borg was ready to pack it in. The 27-year old phenom was walking away from the court because, as he put it, he was no longer having fun.
Borg owned his first racket at the age of 9, making his tennis debut at 16 with Sweden's Davis Cup team. By 1974, he had already won nine tournament titles, including his first French Open.
He went on to win 11 Grand Slam titles, (more than any other man in the Open era to date) five consecutive Wimbledon titles, and six French Opens.
The soft-spoken Swedish superstar had competitors reeling, teen-age girls swooning, and tennis fans excited worldwide. With the tennis world in his hands, he was hanging up his tennis shoes.
"I just didn't enjoy tennis anymore," Borg explains. "My mind was not out there. I needed to take time for myself."
Fortunately Borg remembered how much he missed the sport - just in time for the inaugural season of the over-35 Nuveen Tour. And it showcased the fun Borg had been missing.
Now, there's a twinkle in Borg's eye as he dukes it out with the top seniors in the world. He smiles with a cool confidence because he's enjoying himself, he's playing well, and he's getting paid to do it.
The Nuveen Tour was a new brand of senior tennis during its 1993 opening season, conceptually similar to the professional senior golf circuit, including big sponsors, players, and prize money. Unlike the Senior PGA, the Nuveen Tour was launched by a couple of entrepreneurs, including Jimmy Connors, but without the backing of the men's professional tour.
Senior tennis is nothing new, but prior to Nuveen, it never could get off the ground. The first year featured a handful of matches, but four years later, there is an international circuit of 20-plus events in 10 countries on four continents. Crowds are flocking to check out the buzz.
When asked why the endeavor has been so successful, tennis great Connors - the tour's biggest draw - explains: "The sponsors, players, and fans have made this what it is today."
Some 20,000 fans and dozens of media converged at Willowbend Country Club for the Cape Cod Championship over the weekend, indicating the demand for quality tennis played at a superior level, and, most important, tennis that is fun to watch.
And that is entirely up to the players. The $150,000 tournament drew big names such as Connors, Borg, Guillermo Vilas, and not-so big names such as Mel Purcell and Mansour Bahrami. John McEnroe is another popular attraction, though he did not play this past weekend.
Nuveen publicist Scott Matulis explains that fans want to see tennis personalities they can identify with, and they want to see quality tennis. The big names are the bait, but the overall presentation is the hook.
"Folks come out to see Borg and Connors because they are Borg and Connors," comments Mr. Matulis. The fans quickly recognize, however, that the other 10 veteran players in the tournament are also delivering a spectacular show.
The players are fit, and they want to win. What makes it more interesting is that these competitors and longtime rivals are friends.
"Most of these guys really get along with each other," reveals Mel Purcell, a Nuveen crowd favorite and 1983 Wimbledon quarterfinalist. "The pressure's off and things are more relaxed."
Groups of players pal around in practice the day before match play. A small crowd gathers to watch Johan Kriek, Eddie Dibbs, and Borg participate in a lively exchange of classic tennis: well-placed serves, deep ground-strokes, angled volleys, delicate drop-shots, and ... wisecracks.
They occasionally chide one another and joke about each others' good shots and bad ones. Following a Kriek forehand winner, Dibbs turns to Borg and inquires, "How am I supposed to know where the ball's going when he doesn't even know." Kriek overhears and replies, "That's the best shot." Bjorn silently grins, perfectly Borgesque. They are back to serious tennis. A perfect balance has been struck between work and play, good tennis and goofing around.
The tournament reflects the amount of skill these 30 to 40-something "seniors" are still putting into their games. They push each other to perform at the highest levels of play. Gaping-mouthed fans look on at a myriad of colorful shots most can only dream of producing.
"This is so much fun," exclaims an excited onlooker. "I have never seen tennis like this." Perhaps that is because men's professional tennis hasn't been played this way for years. There are no 120 m.p.h.-plus serves, points are longer, shots are finessed, and the players are personable and connect well with the fans.
The question then becomes, how could Borg not return to tennis? "I'm really lucky to be back playing tennis. The enjoyment is back, that's why I'm here," Borg says.
With the success of the Nuveen Tour and a new source of enjoyment, Borg doesn't appear to be leaving anytime soon.
At press time, Connors had retired 3-1 to Borg. Borg was scheduled to play Andres Gomez on Sunday.