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Well he's not dead. He's not even ill or infirm. No, and he hasn't grown nails nine inches long, painted himself with polka dots or metamorphosed into some shivering, babbling old punk troll. When Bjorn Borg took some time off the other day from playing hockey, selling Saabs and rolling in dough, where should he turn up but right at home on the French Riviera. Same young Bjorny, too, except for a couple of things. At the Monte Carlo Country Club Borg was laughing and joking and relaxing and whistling while he, uh, worked. Whistling. What's even more amazing is that he lost a tennis match and the Mediterranean sky, as clear and cerulean and glorious for as far as the mortal eye could see, did not fall. Did not dare. Some things transcend Borg's losing. "I've played so many years," he said amid the uproar, "I can take a loss."
That was it, of course. Borg, still only 25, has played so many years, won so many years, that when he took off a measly five months from the tour, it seemed an eternity. And when he came back, sauntering in the same bowlegged fashion, spiffed out in the same Filas and even wielding his racket the same way, he not only got beat but was thoroughly blasted into the copper clay of Monaco by Yannick Noah, the Frenchman from the Cameroons, 6-1, 6-2. There was doom in the salt air, and mourning. Directly, a French phrase came to French lips: La mer s'est élevée avec les pleurs (The sea has risen with tears).
It's difficult to fathom just how enormous a public figure Borg is in Europe. The aura is of a Kennedy in Hyannis, a McCartney in Liverpool, a Mailer in Elaine's—we're talking long-ball hitter here. Upon Borg's return to the circuit, he was greeted with an outpouring of media attention usually reserved for assassinations or wars or Princess Caroline's latest squeeze. Alone or with his wife, Mariana, Borg graced the covers of three of France's national weeklies. A cadre of British journalists flew across the Channel to wait on his every word. Scores of press and paparazzi from every nook of the continent descended on Monaco for the occasion. Even the vast array of barefoot contessas gathered in all their splendor—and on the beach in all their altogether—for this traditional opening of the spring social season on the Côte d'Azur were as street hags in the wake of Le Grand Retour of Borg. And all this over a qualifier.
The controversy surrounding Borg's having to qualify for his own club tournament was nearly as misguided as the sorrow following his inevitable defeat. First, after three months of not touching a racket, followed by two months of practice—albeit tough, regimented sessions at his homes in Sweden and France under the command of mentor-hen Lennart Bergelin—Borg wasn't about to win the Monte Carlo Open. Not against such a star-studded clay-court field as this one. Borg said so himself afterward. "I did not expect to win or do unbelievably well," he said. "It is too hard, too soon." Fact is, Borg was probably fortunate he didn't make it to the semifinals, where who knows what dire embarrassment may have awaited him. He would have faced Ivan Lendl, who had won 70 of 71 matches and 12 tournaments in the last six months, and he surely would have had his way with Borg. Instead, Lendl beat Noah 6-1, 1-6, 6-1. Then in Sunday's final Guillermo Vilas upset Lendl 6-1, 7-6, 6-3.
Borg's presence in the qualifying—the subject of so much hue and cry among the game's image-mongers—was necessary because of his refusal to comply with Rule 8 in the 1982 Grand Prix guide. It states that a player must commit to playing a minimum of 10 tournaments a year, not counting the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, or be forced to qualify for all tournaments. Claiming he needed his "retirement" months and saying he desired more rest later—translation: time to perform in exhibitions from the Falkland Islands to Timbuktu at wages commensurate with whatever the designated countries' national debts will allow—Borg chose to enter seven tournaments and to petition the Men's International Professional Tennis Council to alter the rule. Forehand crosscourt. The MIPTC refused. Volley deep. Borg said fine, he would just as soon not go through the qualies at the French, which he has won only six times, and at Wimbledon, where he's only a five-time winner. Backhand pass. On the line.
Arthur Ashe, who's a member of the council and helped write the rule, last week agreed it was unfair. He said Borg had the ad. "It's one thing to say if a guy doesn't go the distance with 502 plate appearances, he doesn't qualify for the batting title," Ashe said. "This rule doesn't even let the guy come to bat."
Subsequently, Borg and his seconds pressed this point against the sport's ruling alphabet agencies—the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) having joined the MIPTC in the fray—until last week, when Monte Carlo buzzed with the drone of tennis politicos searching for a compromise, their blazers and school ties and starch ludicrously out of place on the marble terraces overlooking magnificent Cap-Martin. Butch Buchholz, executive director of the ATP, huddled with Borg. Philippe Chatrier, president of the ITF, caucused with Buchholz. Sir Brian Burnett, chairman of the All England Club, jetted in for discussions with Borg, Chatrier and all the rest.
Would Wimbledon flout the Grand Prix rule and permit Borg to enter its draw straightaway? Would Borg break down and enter three more tournaments? (Significantly, by playing through the qualifying rounds of seven tournaments, Borg probably will wind up playing more—matches if not weeks—to play less.) Was all this nonsense?
Borg, standing on principle, wouldn't budge. "I am not helping them save face," he said.
"Bjorn is standing six feet behind the baseline, covering the corners and swatting every ball back," said Buchholz. "That's what made him great."