SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
June 24, 1985
Inspired by the career of the great Bjorn Borg and shrewdly trained in junior development programs, slews of Swedes are setting the pace in men's tennis
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June 24, 1985

New Breed From The North

Inspired by the career of the great Bjorn Borg and shrewdly trained in junior development programs, slews of Swedes are setting the pace in men's tennis

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To be one of them is to be young and brave, swift and reserved, polite and frugal. For the most part they're blond and have more fun than any allegedly dull, rubber-stamp automatons have any right to. The Swedes. To be one of them is to be all. A unit, not a man. A symbol, not flesh and blood or merely two fists on the backhand.

Typecasting by passport, as Americans tend to do, isn't so bad if you're Mats Wilander, for instance, and cherish privacy, not to mention sanity. Despite winning his second French Open two weeks ago, Wilander can unpack his beloved golf clubs anywhere in the U.S. and remain unrecognized, though he's arguably the second-best tennis player in the world. He might go unidentified at most tennis clubs as well. Just another one of the Swedes. On other continents, however, there's no such anonymity for these remarkable young players who have arrived out of the backwater regions of deepest Scandinavia to turn the game on its ear. During the German Open two months ago in Hamburg, a department store featured an enormous photo of Wilander, surrounded by lights, in its show window. The official poster for the Swedish Open is another huge picture—not of Wilander but of Henrik Sundstrom, whose face is sufficiently familiar that to identify him by name would be superfluous.

For a couple of years now evidence has been mounting that Swedish dominance in tennis is nigh. Bjorn Borg was the original taste, but he was thought to be a freakish anomaly. And he was. His wanton athleticism and extraordinary performances on grand occasions brought him five Wimbledon and six French Open titles. A Swede. As Borg began amassing his championships, somebody said it was as if a Calcutta ricksha boy were quarterbacking the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl.

Soon enough, ricksha boys with blond hair and devastating ground strokes were cropping up all over Sweden. By late 1982, 10 Swedes were ranked among the top 200 players in the world, and that didn't include Sundstrom and Stefan Edberg, perhaps the most promising of them all, who were unranked juniors. This meant that a fraction more than one Swede per every million inhabitants of this snowy sliver of Scandinavia, with 8.3 million people, were among the best tennis players in captivity.

And these weren't merely clay court specialists. Last year three of the four semifinalists at the ATP Championships in Cincinnati were Swedes, and four were seeded at the U.S. Open. Both tournaments are played on hard courts. Moreover, in 1984 Swedes won nine singles championships, eight doubles titles, the NCAA singles championship (Michael Pernfors of Georgia by way of Holldiksnas, and he repeated this year), the Olympic gold medal (Edberg) and the Davis Cup. At present five Swedes—Wilander (officially No. 4), Anders Jarryd (6), Joakim Nystrom (8), Edberg (14) and Sundstrom (17)—are ranked in the Top 20, and 14 are in the top 245. All but two of them are 23 or younger. Of the 28 Americans who entered this year's French Open, three reached the round of 16. Five of the eight Swedes in the tournament made it that far.

Borg was the progenitor of this tribe, but his success posed one brutal negative for the game in the homeland: He wiped out the entire first half of the generation that followed him, players who were intimidated, beaten and buffeted out of the sport on the winds of his brilliance. Wilander and the others who came later never had to face Borg at his peak, so when their time came the path was clear. Wilander's time came very early, and so definitive was its impact that he may be almost as responsible as the great Borg for the state of Swedish tennis.

In June 1982, Wilander was No. 12 on the computer but relatively unknown. Two months shy of his 18th birthday—even younger than Borg had been when he won the French for the first time, in 1974—Wilander beat Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose-Luis Clerc and Guillermo Vilas in succession to triumph at the French Open. Wilander made two other lasting impressions in Paris that year, and these characterize Swedish tennis: He displayed good sportsmanship and a feeling for group camaraderie. In the semis, Wilander silenced the normally yawping Court Central crowd when he gave back a point to Clerc. Never mind that it was match point. After a bad call the umpire had declared the match over, but Wilander insisted the point be replayed. "I cannot win this way," he said. On an earlier day Wilander had skipped all preparations for his own match because he was running rackets back and forth from the locker room to his bosom buddy, Nystrom. "When Joaky loses, I lose," Wilander says often.

The point is this: Wilander's '82 French showed the Swedes they could win. They didn't even have to live up to Borg anymore. Matsy was one of them, younger than many. He was not a genius and hardly a workaholic. He pushed shots and won on anticipation and ingenuity. The other Swedes beat him all the time in practice. Now Matsy had gone out and whipped the world. So, when Matsy did it, no one came down with that disease known as kungliga Svenska avundsjuka (royal Swedish jealousy). "You can't imagine how excited we were for Mats those two weeks," says Jarryd. As well as for themselves.

John-Anders Sjogren, 45, captain of the national team until last December, recognized that working with 10 to 12 young players was a costly proposition allowing sparse individual development. "We are from a small country with our own special language," he says. "It is our national character to stay together, to help out each other, to be there. This is the team idea."

Sjogren decided to form a small team—four players would be ideal—of youngsters who would be instilled with responsibility for, and loyalty to, one another. The Swedish construction firm SIAB agreed to sponsor the venture, and Sjogren picked Wilander, Jarryd, Nystrom and Hans Simonsson, the last a striking heartthrob to the Borg manner and mane born, as his original Fab Four.

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