November 11, 2000


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The bite's gone but the barks's there

Rohit Brijnath

First impressions.

Not the hair, the blond tresses long gone, the cut more severe. Not the shoulders, still so wide that he must exit some doors sideways (the waist has thickened, so the shoulders appear less alarming). Not the fingers, once every one of them bandaged in white tape, now just the odd one. Not the racket, once that signature wooden Donnay, with the long grip for his two hands on the backhand, now preferring a modern Head.

No, on first impression, it's the eyes.

Bjorn BorgBlue. Searing blue. Withering blue. Cold, icy, stone-chipped, scary blue. Freeze you in mid-stride blue. Don't-ask-me-stupid-questions blue. Intimidating blue. Get the picture please I'm running out of adjectives, the man has an aura.

Sportswriters begin life with awe in their shirt pocket, constantly having to be told their mouths have fallen open. It's the wonder of it all. But still this is only the second time in my sportswriting life, in 14 years of scribbling on men and women with spectacular skills, that the hair on my arms is standing, I am lost for a word.

The first time comes years ago, in a hotel room in Calcutta. I enter the room and there he is, on his bed, praying. I wait, silently. He finishes, and stands, shuffles towards me, slowly extends his hand in greeting and I am frozen. He is tall, but no basketball player, but he seems to fill the room, to lock off all the oxygen, to tower. Of course he does. He is Ali, as close to God as I will get in sport.

Now it happens again. I am standing six inches away from him in Bangalore, and waiting to do a television interview with him. The cameras haven't rolled yet, so I am trying to make small talk. Make that babbling. Completely incoherent, me a grown man at 38. Thanks a lot Bjorn Rune Borg.

Always, always, right through my tennis writing life, the days I went to Wimbledon, I lived and died and swore by him. No I didn't. My worship was reserved for the man we called Johnny Mac.

John McEnroe and Bjorn BorgTimes change, men grow, sometimes in wisdom too. Sure Mac was the artist, his canvas was tennis, his mood unpredictable, the result magic. Till I realised two things. Mac was an underachiever, and don't gasp, and write me letters saying I'm an idiot. He won seven Grand Slam titles. But Ivan Lendl ("I have as much talent in my little finger as he has in his entire body", McEnroe was reputed to have said of the Czech) won 8, Jimmy Connors won 8. Hell, Mats Wilander (who in truth fitted that 'talent in my little finger' beauty of a quote) won 7, and on three different continents (Australian, French, US), while Mac won only Wimbledon and the US Open. In the end titles count, let's be honest.

One more thing. Mac was rude, downright nasty, obstreperous, annoying. When young, I forgave him everything, for he touched a chord in the rebel in us all. Older now, I am less generous. Yes, he was a character, but so much of what he did was unforgivable.

Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles. Rod Laver won 11. Roy Emerson won 12. Pete Sampras won 13.

Laver is the greatest, and no arguments will be entertained on that. Two Grand Slams, end of discussion. Emerson is by admission a 'lucky' fellow, because so many of his titles arrived when men better, or certainly as good, like Laver and Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad had turned professional, and thus disallowed from playing the Grand Slams for some years.

It leaves Borg and Sampras. My vote was always Sampras. It's changed, it is now Borg.

And it's not just because of the blue eyes.

Who had the superior game? Tough to call. Sampras is an all-court man, relatively comfortable anywhere in the court; Borg's weakest stroke was his volley, the baseline his tented camp. However, though grass is Sampras' favourite surface (he is referred to as the greatest grass-courter ever) he still never managed five successive Wimbledon titles. The baseliner did. To be fair to Sampras, it is said that barring McEnroe, and to an extent Roscoe Tanner, Borg never played great serve and volleyers during his reign.

Who had the superior opposition? No debate required. Sampras started with an aging Becker and Edberg, a short Chang, a quickly burnt out Jim Courier, an unpredictable Andre Agassi, and in the past 3-4 years has found no adequate rival, no hefty challenge. Not his fault, of course, but the truth no less.

Jimmy ConnorsAnd Borg, he had Roscoe Tanner, Guillermo Vilas, Vitas Gerulaitis, Illie Nastase, Raul Ramirez, Adriano Panatta, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Brian Gottfried, Jose Luis Clerc. Moreover, he formed with Connors and McEnroe possibly the most volatile and gifted triumvirate in recent memory. Everywhere that sunuvabitch goes, said Connors, I'll follow him, like a sort of haunting shadow.

So, a final point.

Sampras never won the French, Borg never the US Open (those years the Australian didn't count, and anyway once Borg lost the US-10 times at that-and his aspirations of winning the Grand Slam were over, he didn't travel to Australia which was in those days the final Slam of the year. He played there just once).

Which one was more important to win? In my view, the French.

For baseline players, grass is the test. Borg passed it, mastered it. He won the Masters on hard court, and other tournaments, so it cannot be said he was weak on that surface. For serve and volleyers, clay is the final test to greatness. Sampras is inept on clay, not just at the French Open: he did not have bad luck there, he simply lacked the game.

Tennis' greatest examination of character, of technique, of adjustment, of focus, of concentration, of footwork, comes in summer. When players move from slow, sliding clay, where ingenuity, cunning, relentlessness, heavy topspin groundstrokes are the keys to the quickness of grass two week later which demands a shorter backswing, shorter steps, lightning reflexes, an altogether different repertoire of shots.

Sampras never made the transition. Borg, in three successive years --- 1978-1980 --- won both at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. I rest my case.

Do I dare ask him any of this? Maybe tomorrow, the day after. When the babbling ceases.

Till then, I'll just lean back and watch. So some of the symmetry is gone, and the legs don't pump as fast, and the menace is missing.

But every now and then, he will step into a shot, swivel his shoulders, and hit a double fisted backhand that is, as always, immaculate.

It is just a reminder. That old blue eyes still has a song left in him.

Rohit Brijnath

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