The Spanish Armada sank. The Soviet bloc crumbled. All the nouveau powers that were supposed to erase the memory of the old ones in men's tennis have come and made noise and gone again, leaving the game in traditional hands. Who would have predicted it? A year ago England and Australia were moaning that sad song: What's wrong with our game? Where are the jolly old heirs to Fred Perry, the beer-swigging sons of Rod Laver? Then Britain's Greg Rusedski made the U.S. Open final and rocketed to No. 6, while Aussie Pat Rafter won the Open and shot to No. 2.
Now another power considered past its prime has made its move. In a sudden comeback that no one in tennis foresaw, Sweden swept the Davis Cup from the U.S. 5-0 last weekend behind Jonas Bjorkman.
Come again? Jonas who? Wasn't 1997 reserved for Alex Corretja, Carlos Moya and the rest of the talented Spaniards? Wasn't Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov supposed to challenge for No. 1? Weren't Sweden's Davis Cuppers supposed to fold under the barrage of the American super singles pair of Pete Sampras and Michael Chang? The answers, in reverse order: Yes, yes, yes—and Bjorkman.
In a perfect capper to what has been his best year, the 25-year-old Bjorkman beat Chang 7-5, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in last Friday's opening match before Pete Sampras withdrew with a slightly torn calf muscle in the third set against Magnus Larsson. Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti then beat Todd Martin and Jonathan Stark in straight sets in Saturday's doubles to give Sweden its sixth Davis Cup. On Sunday, Bjorkman polished off Stark in a dead rubber, 6-1, 6-1, and Larsson beat Chang in three sets.
"Everything I do is going my way," Bjorkman says. Clearly, he's coming into his own—just when Swedish tennis had all but given up hope of producing an heir to the championship line of Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. Bjorkman, known before this year for his explosive athleticism and decidedly un-Borglike goofiness, outpaced Rusedski and Rafter with the tour's most dramatic improvement in 1997. Riding a firmed-up forehand and newfound confidence, he went from 69th to fourth in the world rankings. "How do I feel?" he said. "Perfect."
Bjorkman does hilariously accurate impersonations of past stars such as Edberg, John McEnroe and Boris Becker, but it's his game that may make him one of the greats. Stronger strokes have helped him replace Andre Agassi as the sport's most dangerous returner. When Bjorkman and Chang played last Friday, it was almost as if Chang were facing a better version of himself: quick, focused, willing to run down every ball.
"He's very aggressive, and he's fast," Martin says. "All his quickness is utilized in a forward motion, and that puts him in the correct spot on the court almost every time. On top of that, he sees the ball well, and he's got good hands. He realizes his hands are good enough, and he just gets up there and starts swatting."
The 6-foot, 166-pound Bjorkman won three titles and reached five finals in 1997, but he took most delight in beating Chang, first in Hanover, Germany, in the ATP Championships two weeks ago, and again last weekend. "To beat Chang two times in a row.... It's definitely the biggest win for me," Bjorkman says.
It wasn't hard to tell. On the court Bjorkman veers dangerously close to Connors territory—shouting, pumping his fist, even trotting out a small dance step after a particularly big shot. "It's actually three steps I do," Bjorkman says. He also sidelines as a stripper: As he and Kulti approached the press facility for their postmatch interview last Saturday, Bjorkman yanked down Kulti's pants in front of several reporters.
Call it a payback of sorts. Early in Bjorkman's career, at a tournament in Monte Carlo, Larsson telephoned him and pretended to be Borg. Bjorkman worshiped Borg and was thrilled to hear the great man asking him to dinner. He spent the day getting ready, cleaning his best suit, calling the restaurant to double-check the reservation and table. When he arrived, the entire Swedish team was waiting, howling with laughter. Bjorkman was thoroughly embarrassed.