Tennis: Time warp, gentlemen please

Andrew Baker sees history repeating itself as Ice-Borg Senior meets Brat the Elder; The screams of teenagers are now the murmurs of matrons. The fans have changed more than Borg has
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The Independent Online
The really uncanny thing is that, at first sight, Bjorn Borg looks younger than he did when he retired at the age of 27 in 1983. From a distance - and the Albert Hall, where he played John McEnroe on Friday, is a big place - he is as trim as a teenager. And once the ball is in play he seems to be as lightning quick around the court as he was in his prime.

Closer to, across an interview table after the match, his face bears few signs of the afflictions of his years away from the game - the failed relationships, the business problems, the "overdose". He is tanned, almost unlined, and visibly relaxed. "I'm enjoying myself," Borg said. "I'm playing tennis with my friends, with my generation. We have fun off the court."

The fans have changed more than Borg has. In his prime, when he made the Centre Court at Wimbledon his kingdom with five consecutive victories, his achievements were accompanied by the screams of besotted teenagers. Now it is the murmurs of matrons. When Borg played John Lloyd last Thursday evening, the screams had given way to sighs. "I can't make my mind up," one middle-aged woman said to another as the players changed ends. "They're both bloody gorgeous."

Whatever the merits of his physique - and a recent smart trim to the silvery blond hair gives Borg the look of a veteran lifeguard from Baywatch - his game is as attractive as ever. The serve is deep and powerful, the forehand hit with the characteristic loop of top spin, the backhand forced down the line double-handed. Against his contemporaries, you do not notice the slight dropping off of pace that stymied his abortive comeback to the ATP tour in 1991.

Now, as he says, Borg is among friends. At 41, he is well placed for many good years on the grandly titled ATP Senior Tour of Champions on which the Argentine Guillermo Vilas is still winning at the age of 45.

But there is only one player that the fans of the Senior Tour want to see confronting Borg. John McEnroe, who ended the Swede's reign at Wimbledon in the early Eighties.

In 1980 they met in the final, and Borg took his last title. In 1981, they met again, and McEnroe took his first. On Friday the two met once again, for the first time in London since that last Wimbledon encounter, and a packed house at the Albert Hall gave them the kind of reception that their reputations command. A barrage of flashbulbs greeted their arrival, torrents of applause met the announcer's recitation of their achievements. And then they started to play.

It was as if the monolithic Victorian building had been entrapped in a tennis time warp. Borg was smart and silent. McEnroe looked like the "before" half of a dry-cleaning advertisement and rarely shut his mouth. And, as in countless previous encounters, each was the perfect foil for the other's talent.

Before the match was 10 minutes old the New York gallery owner and father of five had reverted to his brattish personality of old. Pale and sullen, his bottom lip jutting, he berated a line judge for a marginal call and then took the matter up with the umpire.

"I'm guilty of hitting the ball too close to the line, huh?" McEnroe ranted. "What can I say, John?" the chair official mildly responded. "You can admit that she made a mistake and you made a mistake," McEnroe demanded. The umpire did neither, and the crowd tittered, then yelled their support for the player.

But Borg was in command in the early stages. His serve seemed impregnable, his passing shots found the lines, and his touch at the net was a delicate as ever. McEnroe seemed out of touch, out of patience and frequently out of breath. The Swede took the first set 6-2, to the delight of his greatest supporter, a man in a monkey suit waving a Swedish flag from a Grand Tier box. Borg blew him a kiss.

But McEnroe, his anger with the officials having seemingly run its course, began to remember what to do with a tennis racket. His serve, previously lacklustre, started to swerve and dip as the aces began to flow. He too was now finding the lines and Borg's previously peerless serve was suddenly broken.

At one set apiece, the match was building up to a fine climax but instead of a nail-biting final set - or another three, as in their greatest Wimbledon final - it was time for a "Champions Tie-break". The Senior Tour does not believe that the players' elderly frames are up to three full sets, so instead they play a first to 10decider.

"Ten!" McEnroe shouted in mock outrage when the umpire announced the tie-break. "I thought it was first to five!" The crowd cheered. The players laughed, and then got on with the game.

Like the best of tie-breaks this one see-sawed between the combatants. Borg stop-volleyed and aced for an early lead. McEnroe responded with an ace of his own and a powerful forehand to draw level. Then Borg was foot-faulted on his serve, and was so flabbergasted at the timing and audacity of the decision that he actually spoke. "Do you get bad calls sometimes?" he asked his opponent. "You just have to roll with the punches, Bjorn," McEnroe responded.

But the American now had the momentum, and with a strong serve from McEnroe and an overhit return from Borg the match was over. It had been their fifth meeting of the year, and McEnroe's third win, and the upraised fists and yell of joy showed how much it meant.

"I was just getting into that," McEnroe said afterwards. "And Bjorn was playing well. It is a real shame we had to play a tie-break. I mean, come on, we're not all that old." Borg nodded his agreement, and it was clear that the two players would willingly have played all night if the organisers had not had other matches to stage.

"The atmosphere felt really electric out there," McEnroe declared. "In a way, we're both playing better than we were a couple of years ago. We're playing more matches, for one thing." Borg concurred. "That was a good match," he said. "We both played good tennis, and I certainly would have liked to play another set."

McEnroe explained that he always got a special buzz playing his old rival, and a real thrill from beating him. But for Borg, defeat had lost the agonising impact that first drove him away from the game.

"When you are number one in the world," he said, "to lose was the end of the world. These days, to win is still important to me - every time I walk on court I want to win - but it is not the only thing in my life. Tennis is not the only thing in my life." There is always the leisure- wear company, after all.

"It is important to want to win," the Swede went on. "That is the way it should be. But after the game, to be able to talk about this and that with the other players is nice. That is a good feeling. And before the matches you don't have to think about things so much. There is not the same pressure."

What about that little piece of advice from McEnroe, to roll with the punches? Would Borg take it on board? McEnroe answered for him. "He has done pretty well so far," he said. And perhaps he was right. Perhaps now, belatedly, Bjorn Borg is learning to roll with life's punches.