Tennis: Serving Swede dreams

Andrew Longmore studies the chemistry behind a formula for Davis Cup success
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The Independent Online
Look in any locker-room on the professional tour and a huddle of Swedes can be found, not doing much except being Swedish and being together. In a sport renowned for its selfishness, the Swedes are a team almost every day, which only goes part of the way towards explaining their remarkable consistency in the Davis Cup. When the Swedes take on the United States in Gothenburg, starting on Friday, it will be their tenth appearance in a Davis Cup final in the last 14 years. Stefan Edberg, the mainstay of their challenge over the past decade, has gone, but Jonas Bjorkman has emerged to take his place without the hint of a blip in the Swedish graph.

"The friendship is very strong between us all," Edberg, now an unofficial adviser to the team, said. "We always work for each other, we like to hang out together and we all enjoy playing Davis Cup even if we have to give up some time to it. The Americans don't have the same feeling for the Davis Cup."

The pitting of individual flair against collective will has characterised ties between these two modern tennis goliaths, though there have been exceptions on either side. John McEnroe defied convention and committed himself to Davis Cup at a time when ridiculing it was fashionable. The peculiar stresses of team competition appealed to McEnroe's deepest competitive instincts. This was real combat not a phony war over the next dollar. Bjorn Borg, dispassionate and often a stranger in his own land, could not quite see the point of it all if there was no money to be earned nor much of a title.

Not for the first time, the US team will arrive in the frozen north as warm favourites, not least because the Swedes have surprisingly chosen to play the tie on indoor carpet. Pete Sampras is now a Davis Cup veteran, yet he took his time to understand the strange forces unleashed by team play. In Lyons six years ago, Sampras was confronted not just by the flamboyant brilliance of Henri Leconte, ranked at that time about 200 places below the American, but by a raucous expression of nationhood which pushed the Frenchman to outrageous extremes and reduced Sampras to a shell. On the final point, as the French team leapt to their feet and engulfed Leconte, the American walked straight to the locker rooms, the glance over his shoulder betraying a look of utter confusion. Others had warned him about Davis Cup, but playing against a whole people? That was too much.

In 1984, on their last visit to the south-western port of Gothenburg, the destructive forces at work within one of the strongest teams ever fielded by the USA contributed to a shock seismic even by the unpredictable standards of the Davis Cup. John McEnroe, undisputed world No 1, US and Wimbledon champion, and Jimmy Connors, at the age of 32 still the world No 4, played singles; McEnroe partnered Peter Fleming in the doubles. Sweden fielded the newly crowned Australian Open champion, Mats Wilander, and Henrik Sundstrom in singles and paired a tall, slender 19-year-old called Stefan Edberg with the feisty Anders Jarryd in the doubles.

While the Swedes had been patiently practising four hours a day for the week before the tie, the Americans were short of preparation and temper. The tone was set when Arthur Ashe, the mild-natured scoutmaster in charge of the Borstal Boys, arrived a little late for practice on the first evening to find the words "F... You" neatly imprinted in the red clay by an irate Connors.

"Everything that could go wrong did go wrong," Fleming recalled. "It was a real good example of how important chemistry is to a team. They had plenty, we had none. John and Jimmy weren't the best of buddies at that time [McEnroe had annihilated Connors at Wimbledon and beaten him in the French and US Opens] and John and Jimmy had their differences with Arthur. And we were playing a bunch of Swedes who were sharp and eager and keen. We'd begun to believe our press clippings. We were just about unbeatable." A 4-1 defeat and deplorable behaviour prompted an outcry in the States, orchestrated by a former secretary to the US Treasury, and calls for both McEnroe and Connors to be thrown off the team.

Victory for the Swedes triggered a remarkable run of success. They won the Cup twice in the next three years and reached seven successive finals. And still the generations keep rolling on, propelled by a host of volunteers who staff the clubs in every little village in the land and by a well- organised youth system. After Borg came Wilander, then Edberg, all world number ones. Is it just coincidence that Jonas Bjorkman has flourished in the year after Edberg's retirement, driven from 68 to four in the world by a lust for profit but also by national pride and tradition? At least one Swede has been in the year-end top 10 since 1974.

"I used to practise with him when he was 17 and 18," Edberg said. "I thought maybe he could get to 15 or 20 in the world. But he was always available for practice and he worked harder than the others." Edberg too is doing his bit for the future with his Tennis Foundation which provides scholarships and financial help for promising young players. "I want to keep providing players for the Davis Cup because I think that's important. In 10 years' time, who knows? There is a good chance that more will come through, but you wouldn't bet on it." You wouldn't bet against it or another triumph for Team Sweden.