Poster boy Borg is paper tiger in comeback try


April 25, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

I recognize that, at 34, I'm too young to start complaining about the good old days. Besides, my generation grew up listening to Kansas, watching "Starsky and Hutch" and wearing wide-wale bell-bottoms -- the signatures of our day aren't exactly those whose loss you mourn.

But seeing Bjorn Borg on that court at the Monte Carlo Open the other day, wearing the same headband and stoic face, hitting the same two-handed backhand and using the same wooden rackets, brother, talk about a love letter from the past. Those were indeed the good old days for those of us who follow tennis. For him, too.

A disclaimer: I submit this with no small amount of feeling. Every kid tacks up a poster of someone, and for me, it was Borg. We were the same age and favored the same sport. I loved his iciness, his ground strokes, his look. I tried to walk his rolling walk. I bought his ugly clothes. I even wore puka beads around my neck until some kid at school, well, never mind.

I grew out of it, even found myself rooting for a trash-talking New Yorker when he played Borg in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But never, not to this day, did I lose my appreciation for Borg. His days as tennis' best were indeed better days.

Here was a No. 1 who never complained about calls, who never whined about how tough life was at the top, who just kept hitting passing shots and didn't go on television saying "image is everything." He was famous for his tennis, not his idiosyncrasies, and had such elegance that even McEnroe was moved to on-court silence out of respect.

Here was a No. 1 who was weaned on slow clay courts, but taught himself to play serve-and-volley on grass, becoming the best in the world at it, winning five straight Wimbledons. Ivan Lendl's failure at the same task underlines Borg's superiority as a champion.

Here was a No. 1 who played tennis, not the ball-banging game of Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. That's spiteful, but it comes from the heart. Giant rackets have taken the touch and subtlety -- and soul -- from tennis. Borg was unorthodox with all that topspin, but he mixed speeds and placements with the touch of a wise, old pitcher. Today, it is just who hits the hardest.

During a rain delay the last time I was at Wimbledon, in 1989,

British TV broadcast one of those Borg-McEnroe finals from the early '80s. Every point was a classic, all angles and knack and deception. The network made a mistake. When the rain ended, the live stuff suffered badly by comparison.

Think about it: Becker and Edberg played a five-set final at Wimbledon last year, a should-be classic, and no one remembers. Why? Four hours of three-shot rallies. That's not meant as an insult to the players, who are merely caught in the game's evolutionary spin. The spin itself is the problem.

Of course, Borg didn't come back with his obsolete rackets out of some saccharine loyalty to the past. There is a desperate quality to this comeback that was lacking in those of Spitz, Foreman, Palmer. Borg needs the money. He says he doesn't, but he's just putting on a brave face. The good old days were his last good days.

His life has been a mess since he abruptly retired eight years ago, a burnout at 26. His many businesses and marriages have failed. He has lost homes and belongings, been meat for lawyers. He had as little knack off the court as he had on it.

Yesterday, a day after he lost badly to an obscure Spaniard in the first match of his comeback, his wife, an Italian pop star, tried to kill herself. The word is that they hadn't been together in two months, that she was distraught over rumors of him taking up with a new girlfriend.

It is no wonder he is making a comeback. The tennis court is a sanctuary compared to the rest of his life, even at his diminished level of play. This is a man who truly needed to stay 22 forever. It is all sad, of course, particularly to those of us who had his poster on the wall. You never quite escape those things.

He says he is serious about this comeback, wants to play Wimbledon and the French Open and give himself a chance to regain some touch. Such comebacks are romantic, offering a new view of a favorite, old photograph. But the view always disappoints, except for rare cases such as Foreman's. It is usually best to leave things be. Unless you need the money.

Borg is only 34, so he can measure up physically. I support him for no other reason than his rackets and demeanor stand for the tennis I prefer, the good old days. But he has no chance with those rackets. Today's big, graphite models generate too much power.

He must compromise if he wants to keep this going, and even then, he'll be lucky to crack the top 50. (I admit I'd enjoy seeing his ground strokes hit with those rackets.) Eight years is just too long, and his personal problems probably have eaten at his resolve.

But I can't lie. No matter what happens, the videotape of him standing on that court in Monte Carlo the other day, swinging his wood racket with the same grace -- that was beautiful to see again. I know there isn't much hope anything will come of it, but tennis is still a better place with Bjorn Borg inside it. He was a singular champion. We should be gentle with him.

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