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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


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

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He stood there, leaning on the long, polished bar, almost like a mirage, out of the mists of time. One moment the massive crowd, bearing notebooks, cameras and microphones, waiting in the adjoining ballroom of the elegant Sporting Club in Monte Carlo, was buzzing with anticipation. Then, all of a sudden, poof! He was there.

He had the same uncombed blond tresses straggling below his neck just so, the same slouched insouciance, the same narrow-eyed grin. He was wearing a yellow cardigan sweater, and he looked, well, the same. Which is to say terrific. "He is always the great-looking boy, eh?" says his first wife, Mariana Simionescu Borg, who resides in the hills above Monaco and who keeps her former husband's name though she lives with a race car driver with whom she has had a son and though it is six years after the divorce.

Before anybody could reach Borg, French movie idol Alain Delon and Prince Albert of Monaco escorted him into the ballroom, where Delon would pick his name from a silver bowl. Everyone who was anyone was waiting to see whom he would play in the first round of the Monte Carlo Open, his first serious tennis match in what...nine...ten...nine hundred and ten years?

Mon Dieu! How long has it been since the boy—his three or four facial lines sparse evidence of his 34 years—bade farewell to tennis and tumbled into a harsh universe, to be overwhelmed by chaos and controversy in both his professional and personal lives? Can he find happiness by coming back to the fount of his only triumphs, to the one thing he used to do better than anybody else in the world?

In 1981 the great Bjorn Borg, having won the French Open six times and Wimbledon five years in succession, was existing on a paradisiacal plateau, protected from the mundane realities of life on the circuit by Mariana (or Scumpo, "darling" in her Romanian tongue) and Lennart Bergelin, his coach. Bergelin would handle the plane tickets and string the rackets; Mariana would iron the shirts and cook the steaks. "We were home to him," she says. "We were Sweden." And Bjorn would win the tournaments.

Back then Borg didn't say much in his tedious press conferences. One thing he did say, invariably, in his cracked English, no matter how well he had played, was this: "Sings could shange from day to day." Coming from the pearly, golden-faced Borg, this statement always seemed strangely humorous, or humorously strange—until John McEnroe beat him at Wimbledon in that summer of '81, and then again at the U.S. Open two months later. For sure—something else Borg always used to say—sings really did shange.

Borg played but one tournament in each of the next three years, seemingly driven out of Dodge by the raw, cacophonous brilliance of the young, lefthanded gun. In truth, however, it wasn't McEnroe who forced Borg from the game he had graced since the age of, Lord, 17! It was Borg's own horrifyingly insular existence.

"We never had an adolescence," says Mariana, who played professionally for nine years before marrying Borg. "Bjorn and I started [playing] tennis, started together, so young, there was never anything but the game. We were closed off. Our development was inhibited. We never had time to live like real people."

Borg may not have been the inspiration for the current catch phrase "get a life," but he seemed determined to change his. With a game built around speed, mental toughness and hard work, and with McEnroe in ascendance, Borg knew he couldn't cut back, spend fewer hours on the practice court, and remain at the top. He either had to continue doing what he was doing or stop playing. Period. So he quit. At 26, promising "absolutely nothing" would get him to return to competitive tennis, Borg announced his retirement in January 1983.

"And left the game wanting," says Arthur Ashe. "I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam. But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody. He'd lost touch with the real world."

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