11-time Grand Slam legend Björn Borg

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(We often talk of the tennis superstars of today- Federer et al., but for me Björn Borg was in a league of his own and dominated when there were two other legends around John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners)

EARLY MORNING in the heart of an icy Stockholm on June 9, a motley crowd waited at Gotgatan 78, a building with plush interiors – also called Skrapan by many in the city- for a handful of models to kick-start a fashion parade displaying products branded by the legendary Björn Borg. Sadly, the 11-time Grand Slam winner did not turn up for the 40-minute event. His friends mention that he is still ebullient after the recent French Open success of his Swedish compatriot Robin Söderling over Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Apparently, Borg was so happy that he had texted a brief message to the youngster: “Congratulations, and thank you for not letting Nadal break my record”. The world number 25, Söderling had hoped for a telephone call after seeing off the defending champion, who had aimed to clinch his fifth successive French Open title, in four sets.

“Söderling is what Swedish tennis needs,” says the Grand Slam king, who holds 62 singles titles that include six French Opens (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981) and five more at Wimbledon (1976-1980). The unflappable Swede, whose calm demeanour and cool game — most evident against the temperamental John McEnroe and more sober Jimmy Connors — once led the cheeky British tabloid press to label him the ice-in-the-veins man, never played the Australian Open on a matter of principle, and lost the US Open final on four occasions. In fact, Borg visited Paris two days after Söderling’s victory amid rumours that he wanted to mix business with pleasure and revive some of his glories in a private screening close to the sunshine-dried clay courts.

Borg believes the new Luxilon super strings are helping tennis stars create some amazing angles
Borg would not confirm that. The legend, who Sports Illustrated once said was ridiculously dominant during his days, is composed about his messy, after-tennis life and, in fact, laughingly admits that worldwide, not all sports luminaries have found peace and contentment in retirement, and that he was among those who had serious hassles settling down in life. He was often troubled with his personal life — the tabloids had all the juicy tales about his nights out and broken marriages — while his failed attempt to string his wooden racket and return to the courts in 1991 for a futile second innings, seven years after his retirement, made even bigger headlines. But for Borg, now an accomplished businessman, after-dinner speaker and part-time tennis show host, that is a thing of the past. “Losses and tensions are not part of his routine anymore,” quips Rocky af Ekenstam Brennicke, his agent. His friends have told Borg that he is better off than Manchester United hard man Eric Cantona, who once made news for grabbing Paul Gascoigne’s testicles and made his screen debut in Guy Ritchie’s gangster film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. “My brand is a household name in Sweden, and sells in more than 25 nations across the world,” Borg said.

For the master baseline strategist, who — in the 1970s — strung his wooden rackets so tight that they frequently broke, tennis remained a simple racket and felt-covered ball game that was played in the courts over a net and revolved around controlled power and heavy topspin. He concedes that his best opponent would still be McEnroe. He still remembers how he made the Super Brat fight for every inch of court.

He is reluctant, though, to talk about Sweden’s slow, steady slip in world tennis. There still are many Swedes in the top hundred, but it seems as though the game, in the land of ABBA, got a little sidetracked between him, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg.

“But we have Söderling. He can take Swedish tennis to a high,” says Borg.

He has also seen a recent piece about tennis by Patrick Saunders in The Denver Post that compared golf, with its ever-changing menu of highpower drivers, hybrid-irons, rescue clubs and new age putters, to tennis and called the latter “meat and potatoes”. Borg says Saunders is actually hinting at changes in tennis, especially the Luxilon strings that are the latest innovation in the game. At this year’s French Open, more than half the contestants used Luxilon strings, a polyester product designed by Belgium’s Luxilon Industries that actually specialises in medical sutures and bra straps. “Innovation in the main (up-and-down) strings is helping stars create some amazing angles,” says Borg. But he cautions that the so-called super string is not for the beginner or even the average player. “Only those in the top league know how to use it,” he says, adding: “I do not push juniors who come to me for lessons to go for them. It’s better to start a natural game and then innovate.”

In his view, specialised strings have helped to change the game. Now, quicker, taller men and women with deep wellsprings of stamina and an immense capacity to move the ball faster have made the game a power sport loaded with 125 mph serves and returns. In the process, the character of world tennis has changed and the clever skills that players of Borg’s generation nurtured have all but disappeared. “Now, I like to watch only a few matches,” says Borg, who still plays six hours of tennis every day — the game is as much a part of his routine as his breakfast of egg and ham sandwiches.

‘I was the first tennis player to wear fashionable clothes without really knowing it,’ says Borg
But the legend, it seems, never really went off the courts. He might no longer be moving like an unstoppable fjord on them but everything that he’s accomplished since has grown out of his early career.

IN THE early 1990s, after his failed comeback to professional tennis made him realise how much the game had changed, he launched his range of branded, designer undergarments. During his heyday, Borg often said that all a tennis player really needed was a good tennis racket and shoes. Back then, he favoured Fila active wear and Diadora sneakers mostly because of the comfort they afforded.

“As a professional tennis player, you did not think much about how you looked on court. I was the first tennis player to wear fashionable clothes without really knowing it,” he says in a note on his website. “I am superstitious and wore the same shirts during the Wimbledon games, for instance, different shirts, of course, but all with the same design. I wore certain shirts for certain games,” he adds. He doesn’t think the current lot of tennis stars is particularly stylish. “Back when I was active, design and fashion were very different. Now the players dress more relaxed, the shorts have longer legs… Fashion has entered the picture,” he says.

Borg himself was always interested in fashion. “Clothes are a lot of fun. It is a fascinating industry. I am having a lot of fun and happy innovating with some dream designs,” he says. Agrees his agent: “When we launched the brand 20 years ago, men’s underwear in vivid colours didn’t exist. We are actually one of the forerunners when it comes to sporty fashion underwear,” says Brennicke. “We saw a gap in the product range and filled it with comfortable, sporty, trendy products for everyday use,” he adds. Today, the company markets underwear, summer wear, lounge wear, shoes, bags, fragrances and socks for both men and women from its designer fashion stores.

Somwhere, a tinge of his personal life is also reflected in his products. Always a winner, he has managed to transform personal pain into business success. His disappointments in love led him to set up a free dating site. And in a rather cheeky move that reveals the IceBorg’s ability to laugh at his own romantic failures, he has also launched products under the label Break Up — In the Name of Love. “Borg wants more people to find love. He contributes to this with a free dating site, at www.bjornborg.com/love. The Break Up theme is a way of daring people to leave bad relationships and find true love,” says Brennicke. The site features lucky underwear for men and women, and clothing that he wore during his days. Borg will not reveal which event inspired this design. It is very private to him, almost like his final statement about how he’d be happy even on a desert island as long as he had a working boat, music and some chilled beers.

It’s advantage, Borg. He is, rightly, scripting his own statement. The simple wooden racket, felt-covered ball game and the umpires can take a break.