One of the most storied rivalries in tennis will renew next week at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, as Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe face each other as captains of Team Europe and Team World at the Laver Cup. Borg has selected a team of players from Europe to face McEnroe’s players from the rest of the world.
The most famous foes in men’s tennis of the late 1970s and early ‘80s were dubbed Fire and Ice. The American lefty grew as famous for his petulant outbursts and rebellious persona as his artful shot making. The Swede was his antithesis: poker-faced and unflappable on court and with an eccentric ultrafit regimen off-court and the long flowing blond hair and stylish clothes of a rock star. Borg, often called the original tennis hipster, retired suddenly at age 26, leaving fans – and his biggest rival – to wonder what else might have been.
The Globe reached Borg, 67, at his home in Stockholm preparing for his trip to Canada. The 11-time Grand Slam champion says he still attends the world’s most prestigious tournaments, still works with tennis sponsors and loves to watch great matches. His voice rings sentimental when discussing McEnroe, and the bond fortified at their famous 1980 Wimbledon final.
When and where are you happiest?
I’m happiest at home in Stockholm with my family, just staying at my place.
What is your greatest regret?
Probably not winning the U.S. Open. I was in the final four times. Maybe I had chances in a couple of those finals to win, but I did not.
What is your greatest fear?
To be sick. I want to stay healthy, to wake up in the morning and feel good. If I cannot do that, I’m scared. Not only myself, but my family, and those closest to me, to be happy and healthy, and not to be sick.
If not pro tennis, what job might you have pursued?
I’m a sports freak. When I was a young boy I played tennis and hockey. So maybe I would be playing hockey for the Canucks. My favourite sport today besides tennis is hockey. I watch the NHL and Swedish hockey. When I’ve been travelling in Canada or in the States, I’ve been to so many hockey games. I played for a long time but not any more. I was skating all the time and playing with friends. But I’m too old now.
Which talent would you most like to have?
To be able to play music when you’re among friends, and you’re laughing and having a great evening. If I could play an instrument that would be a lot of fun. Guitar would be nice.
What is a trait you most dislike in yourself?
I want to be more patient. I’m too eager sometimes to find out things, to do things I want to do.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m a family man. I love my family. That’s the most important thing for me. It’s always been. I have a beautiful and lovely wife; she’s going to come to Vancouver with me. I have two great sons. I don’t feel good when I can’t be together with them.
Are there any authors or books that have resonated with you?
No, but my wife [Patricia Östfeld] is writing a book right now – about my life – that will come out next year. It will be in Swedish and English. So we have a lot of nice discussions about my life. It’s hard, because some things she doesn’t know about, and I have to tell her something, and maybe she’s not so happy with what I’m telling her. I’m happy she’s doing it. We’ve been together for 23 years, and she knows me quite a lot.
What frustrates you?
People who are not honest. I don’t like that at all.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Since I was about 20 years old, something I was always crazy about was boats. On the water, on a boat, you feel a kind of a freedom, you feel very good about yourself.
What kind of boats? Do you still own one?
Offshore speed boats. But no, not anymore. I sold my boat five years ago.
Who is a person you wish to meet?
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve met many people. I always wanted to meet John Lennon but I never had the opportunity.
What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
I played World Team Tennis – a team competition in the States – in 1977 and I was playing for the Cleveland Nets. Then when I went over to Wimbledon, the owner of the Cleveland Nets said to me “if you win Wimbledon I’m going to give you a Corvette.” Well I did win, and he shipped a nice grey Corvette over to me, where I was living in Monte Carlo.
What is the hardest thing in tennis?
To play the important points right. That’s the difference between the players ranked top 10 in the world, and ranked 150 – winning those important points. It’s also tough when you play the important matches, and at Grand Slam tournaments, to handle the pressure. There are many good players – everybody can hit the forehand and backhand – but those two differences make a great player.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Except for my two sons, I’d say when I beat McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final. That was one of the greatest matches and that meant a lot for me personally. [Borg won 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6].
That has been called one of the greatest tennis finals of all time. Is that your favourite match, when you look back at your career?
Yes that’s probably the favourite match, maybe for both John and myself, even if he lost the match. We played a great match and people saw great tennis. That particular match helped tennis to grow, I think. Both me and John, we were very proud of that.
John McEnroe has said about your early retirement that tennis without his greatest rival wasn’t as fun. What was it like for you after retiring at a young age?
After I retired, the first couple of years were great because I didn’t have a schedule. I was not motivated to play tennis, and I wanted to do other things, so I was a very happy person because I could do whatever I felt like doing. With tennis for so many years I had my schedule, and I knew exactly what I would do every day. But then after those two, three years off tennis, I started to get bored because I didn’t have the schedule and I was not prepared for life. I think today when people step away from sports, they are prepared. I was not. I was trying to jump to different areas of business and different things, but I didn’t have one particular thing I wanted to do. But it turned out well for me anyway.
When you watch tennis today, do you see traces of your influence or the signature style that you played?
No, I think tennis has changed. It’s a different tennis today than when we played. There are more players today, the competition is so much tougher, there’s so many more countries today playing tennis than when we played. They hit the ball so much harder today than we did.
Now you get to compete with McEnroe again, your players against his in Vancouver?
It’s nice to see John. We’ve been keeping in touch for many years now and we see each other one in a while, we talk on the phone. He’s a very good and close friend and that will continue for many more years.
How would you describe your current state of mind?
I’ve been feeling good for many years. I have good people around me, I have a great family who loves me, and I love them. We have a good time, we do things together. I have no complaints.