What does it mean to be revolutionary? The word gets thrown around a lot in sporting realms, but when is it truly deserved? I believe it is not enough to merely excel at a given sport. For one to be considered revolutionary they must fundamentally alter the way their sport is played, and perceived.
When searching for athletes who fit this mould, people like Pele, Dick Fosbury, Sugar Ray Robinson and Donald Bradman come to mind, but who would this revolutionary be in tennis?
Perhaps the first names that spring to mind are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, the three greatest players in the history of men’s tennis when you consider Grand Slams. But I would argue that, while these players are exceptional, they were not the revolutionaries of their sports, and are instead playing the game Bjorn Borg created.
Borg made his first big splash into professional tennis in 1972, when at the age of fifteen he represented Sweden in the Davis Cup. He was drawn to play Onny Parun of New Zealand, and overcame the future Australian Open finalist in five sets. The world was starting to take notice.
His first real foray into Grand Slam tennis came at the 1973 French Open, where he made the fourth round before losing to eighth seed Adriano Panatta (Panatta would be the only man to defeat Borg at the French Open).
1973 would prove to be a breakthrough year for the young Borg, as he made the quarter finals of Wimbledon a few months after his French Open run. Borg appeared to be one for the future, and it turned out that future was not too far away.
In 1974 Borg’s domination of the Roland Garros clay would commence when he came from two sets down to defeat Manuel Orantes in the final. Borg would go on to win five of the next seven French Open titles, ending his career with six. Rafael Nadal is the only man to have more in the Open Era.
Despite his dominance on clay, Borg is perhaps best known for his reign at SW19. It took Borg slightly longer to adapt his game to the grass of Wimbledon, but in 1976 it appeared he had found the missing link. Coinciding with his dominance on clay, came a complete monopoly of the Wimbledon title. Borg was the champion at the all-England club for five consecutive years, and was considered unbeatable by many.
‘The Channel Slam’
One of the things that made Borg such a marvel was his simultaneous domination of the French Open and Wimbledon. ‘The Channel Slam’ as it is known, is completed when a player wins both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. The difficulty lies with the contrast of the two surfaces, polar opposites in every way.
The clay of Roland Garros produces a slow and high bouncing ball, while the grass at Wimbledon is fast and keeps low. The transfer of skill proved difficult for many, with Rod Laver being the only man to complete ‘The Channel Slam’ in the Open Era. That was until Bjorn Borg.
Borg completed the ‘Channel Slam’ on three consecutive occasions between 1978 and 1980, a feat which many considered impossible. The magnitude of Borg’s achievement remains relevant today as nobody has come close to matching it, only Nadal in 2008, Federer in 2009 and Djokovic in 2021 have completed the ‘Channel Slam’, but none have been able to match Borg’s three.
So, what was it about Borg that made him able to not just compete, but dominate on such contrasting surfaces?
Style of Play
Like many revolutionaries, Borg’s playstyle was considered by many to be unorthodox, to the extent that several coaches tried to train it out of him in his early years. While to fans of tennis in the 1970s Borg’s style may have appeared unusual, to the modern tennis fan it may appear quite familiar.
The weight of tennis rackets in the early Open Era and prior, meant that players often used a continental grip, the grip used for volleying. This often led to a lack of top spin and for players to rely on the serve and volley.
Borg would break this mould, becoming one of the pioneers for the use of a western grip (currently the most common grip in tennis). This allowed Borg to create large amounts of top-spin off his forehand, one of the main reasons for his domination of clay. Borg would often finish his forehand by whipping the racket around his head, a motion that has been widely popularised by Rafael Nadal.
Perhaps Borg’s most memorable contribution to the sport was his use of a two-handed backhand. Although players like Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert also used the two-handed stroke, neither were able to produce as much spin as Borg.
Borg changed the way tennis was played on grass, breaking the serve and volley trope. His power and spin meant that he was able to dominate players from the back of the court, and when it was necessary also had the ability to come to the net.
Fire and Ice
Like with many sports, if you want to be remembered as great then you need a great dance partner. Perhaps no rivalry captured the imagination of tennis fans more than that of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, “Fire and Ice.” The two players were complete opposites in terms of personality, but when they got on court the result was always special.
Their battles at Wimbledon and the US Open are well documented, with their 1980 Wimbledon final considered by many to be the best tennis match of all time. It is widely believed that the two of them created an increased interest in the sport, catapulting it to new heights.
Retirement and Legacy
In 1982 Bjorn Borg shocked the world when, at the age of twenty-six, he retired from tennis. The reason for Borg’s retirement has been debated for years, with some thinking that his losses to McEnroe were beginning to take a toll on him, while others believe he simply fell out of love with the sport. The reality is probably a mixture of the two.
In his short, illustrious career Borg won eleven grand slams, the most of any man by the age of twenty-six. This included five Wimbledon and six French Open titles, a number nobody has come close to. Throughout the 1970s Borg became a cultural icon, launching tennis to dizzying heights and setting the stage for the super stars of today.
But Borg’s real legacy is the modern game of tennis itself. His domination of tennis throughout the 1970s demonstrated to people that there was a superior method of playing. He highlighted the effectiveness of top spin, and without doubt laid the foundation for its wide use in the sport. He truly was tennis’ revolutionary.