Tennis: Bjorn-again oldies in the Hall of fame

Andrew Baker talks to John Lloyd about this week's Seniors tennis show
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The Independent Online
Never underestimate the power of the old boys' network. Their work from the back of the court is not too dusty either, as thousands of people will be discovering at the Albert Hall, in London, this week when, among others, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pat Cash and John Lloyd take to the boards to attempt to hold back the years without holding back on their groundstrokes.

The event, the Honda Challenge, is just one stop on the increasingly successful, and therefore increasingly lucrative, international merry- go-round known as the ATP Senior Tour of Champions. But it is the first time that such a tournament has been staged on such a scale in Britain. To spice up the mixture a little more, the organisers have invited Britain's top three contemporary male players, Greg Rusedski, Tim Henman and Andrew Richardson, to join some of the oldies in a doubles tournament.

Lloyd will really have his work cut out. On the opening day of the tournament on Thursday, he partners Tim Henman against Rusedski and Peter McNamara, and then has a brief breather before facing Borg in the singles. "I'm already feeling a little bit nervous about it," he said during a break from his busy schedule in the US last week. "I'm quite used to playing in this kind of tournament, but what with it being back in Britain, and in the Albert Hall at that, I'm starting to get the same kind of butterflies that I used to get before I played a big match years ago."

Lloyd will need to be not only as nervous, but also as sharp, as he was in his prime if he is to defeat Borg, a regular tournament winner on the senior tour. "People are going to be shaken by how incredible Bjorn looks," Lloyd said. "He is the same weight that he was as an 18-year-old, and his speed around the court is still incredible. I would swear that he is as fast as one or two players who are in the top ten right now."

The only thing that has changed about the great Swede is his hair. "It's not the flowing locks of old," Lloyd reported. "He sneaked off to a posh hairdresser while we were playing a tournament in New York and got it done. It's a kind of modified long-hair look now."

But the top-spinning forehand and double-handed backhand that became Borg's trade-marks remain unmodified, and as powerful as ever. And Lloyd gets the same sort of thrill stepping on court to face the former teen idol as he did in the days when Borg won Wimbledon five times and Lloyd himself reached the quarter-finals of the US Open.

"Back then, people always used to commiserate with me if I was drawn against Bjorn or John McEnroe early in a tournament," the Briton recalled. "But I didn't feel bad about it. Of course , there was a good chance that I would get beaten, but I always wanted to test myself against the cream of the crop. And I still get the same buzz today whenever I play Bjorn, Jimmy Connors or Mac."

The chance to play with and against Henman, Rusedski and Richardson is particularly appealing to Lloyd, a British Davis Cup coach under the captaincy of his brother David. "A lot of mickey-taking goes on when we are preparing for Davis Cup matches," he said. "I have been known to insult the boys now and then, so someone might feel like taking their revenge. It's certainly going to be interesting watching Greg whack down those serves from the wrong end of the court. Tim's problem, as my partner, will be that he is going to have to cover an awful lot of the court."

The former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash is a recent recruit to the senior ranks, having played in four tournaments and won one. He is quick to quash the notion that the older players are going through the motions to pick up their cheques. "These guys aren't messing around," he said. "It's serious stuff out there. Of course, if you lose it's not like losing the final of a Grand Slam, but every time I pick up a racket I want to play my best."

As the youngest player on the circuit, Cash might be expected to be favourite for every tournament he enters. But this week he is seeded second behind McEnroe, and reckons he will have his work cut out to reach the final. "For one thing, these guys hit the ball just as well as they used to, often better," he said. "For another, we play a super-tiebreak rather than a third set, so stamina doesn't come into it so much. If we played longer matches, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't get beaten, but if one of them gets the drop on me, wins the first set, it can be hard."

As a long-time British resident, Cash is also delighted to be playing on home territory. "The Albert Hall is a wonderful venue," he said. "Every seat has a great view." And, he might have added, they are arranged in such a way that the post-victory climb up to the players' families' seats is almost too tempting.