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UNBJORN
Curry Kirkpatrick
May 06, 1991
After myriad personal setbacks, a changed Bjorn Borg made a sad return to tennis
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May 06, 1991

Unbjorn

After myriad personal setbacks, a changed Bjorn Borg made a sad return to tennis

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Last August, Borg started practicing seriously in locales as diverse as Milan, Buenos Aires and London. Several tennis agents agree that if he is desperate for money, he can earn a quick half-million dollars simply by playing exhibitions against McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Obviously, this comeback is about restoring pride, self-image and respect for the Borg name. It is also about restoring some semblance of order to a life gone haywire. Who knows if even Borg knows exactly what he's doing? Or why? According to Jonas Svensson of Sweden, the 10th-ranked player in the world, who hit with Borg during those first days in Milan, his idol never mentioned returning to the tour. "I read it in the papers a few weeks ago, like everybody else," says Svensson.

During workouts in Monaco with heavy hitters like 23-year-old Boris Becker and 19-year-old Goran Ivanisevic, Borg distinguished himself mostly by playing points nonstop, preventing his youthful adversaries from taking respites for talk, water or even breath. "In fitness he's already Top 10," said Bob Brett, the canny Aussie coach who has recently switched horses, from Becker to Ivanisevic. "Bjorn exhausted Goran. The lesson was priceless." But when Becker was asked for an assessment of Borg's game, he said, "[He hits] with no Druck" using the German word for pressure.

Borg's return had been the talk of the tour. Nobody wanted to be the first one to test him, yet when Spain's Jordi Arrese, 26, a little-known clay-court specialist ranked 52nd in the world, got the call, Borg was given little chance. "Everybody knows practice is just that," said Svensson after a final tune-up with Borg on April 22, the day before the match. "All that counts is tomorrow. After so many years gone, we don't expect much, unless Arrese chokes or flips out because he's playing Bjorn Borg. No, I don't think Bjorn can win."

Came the next afternoon, and a tangible electricity swept the terraces of the Monte Carlo Country Club. As Arrese followed his famous elder onto the burnished dirt court overlooking the sea, the crowd rose and roared in appreciation. "It was a very moving moment, one that will stay in my heart forever," said Arrese later. "I see that they want Bjorn back."

But was he? Although Borg exhibited the striped headband, taped hands and bowlegged gait of his glory years, he bore as much resemblance to the player everyone remembered as did the four guys up in the crowd wearing Borg wigs and Borg headbands. What was this powder-puff serve? This halting, half-swing forehand? This scattered slop from the backhand wing? ("I never knew what to do with the ball. I need to play more matches, more points," said the impostor afterward.) This might have been Franchise Durr tuning up for somebody's Team Tennis franchise, but surely it wasn't the impenetrable Borg.

The 5'9", 142-pound Arrese can hardly break an egg with his uncomplicated, soft-ball style. Still, he looked positively Schwarzeneggerian in pounding Borg 6-2, 6-3. While other players were diplomatic—"We can only tell that Bjorn needs more time," said Mats Wilander—perhaps they were laboring under the same delusions as Borg. If there's one thing he doesn't have, it's time. One match was enough to reveal that in his yearning to return, Borg had made three disastrous decisions:

•To play with a copy of his old wood Donnay racket. Today's enlarged, high-tech graphites give players as much as 30% more power. Borg—whose current rackets were custom-made for him by Gray's, an English squash-racket manufacturer, after he couldn't locate enough of the original Donnays—says he had little control with the new ones. But if nine months wasn't enough time to figure that out, something's wrong with his attention span.

•To enter high-profile tournaments right off. Borg says he needs to play more matches. However, by opting to take three more wild-card entries—at the Italian and French Opens and Wimbledon—rather than play exhibitions, smaller tournaments or even on a satellite circuit, he'll probably have only three more matches over the next couple of months.

•Not to solicit help from a sage tennis head who could adapt Borg's style to the modern game. O.K., so Borg hasn't spoken to Bergelin for four years and made no effort to see him when Bergelin arrived in Monte Carlo, somewhat pathetically carrying half a dozen of Borg's old Donnay rackets, which had been gathering dust in his closet. "Maybe we will talk," Bergelin said, not without sadness. "All of us tennis players are funny that way." But why not a younger coach, such as Brett or one of Borg's contemporaries?

Instead, Borg has placed himself in the hands of one Tia Honsai, né Ron Thatcher, a 79-year-old Welshman and self-proclaimed specialist in the martial arts and in the sleep-inducing massage known as Shiatsu. "The Professor," as Borg calls Honsai, showed up in Monaco talking like a prizefight manager, claiming he knew nothing about tennis and predicting that Borg could win another Wimbledon. Although the Professor had reportedly admonished Berte to stay away, he was accompanied by three women: two ballerinas, named Tanya and Doreen, and a secretary, name unknown, who took dictation while her boss, sitting just 15 feet away from Borg, watched him practice through binoculars. The Professor, who was dressed all in white—except for a blue blazer—can hardly walk because of one broken knee and can hardly hear through his hearing aid, and if those omnipresent zoom lenses are any indication, he has one hell of a time seeing, as well. Nevertheless, on the eve of Borg's déjà vu debut, he paused to enlighten the international media.

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