Lennart Bergelin: Tennis player and coach who became mentor to Bjorn Borg

Saturday 08 November 2008 01:00

Lennart Bergelin was one of the best tennis players Sweden had ever produced, but when he retired from competition in 1959 to sell motor-scooters he must have believed that his days in the public eye were over. Twelve years later, however, he formed a partnership that was to change the sporting landscape.

From 1971 to 1983 Bergelin coached his fellow countryman, Bjorn Borg, who won 11 Grand Slam tournaments and transformed the image of tennis, turning players into quasi-pop stars and fashion icons.

Bergelin, who has died of heart failure in a Stockholm hospital, was at Borg's side throughout his time at the top. He performed many roles – coach, father-figure, masseur, travel agent and press officer to name just a few – but his greatest contribution to Borg's success was his sheer dependability. Borg trusted Bergelin to take care of all his day-to-day concerns, allowing him to concentrate on the skills that made him the best player of his era.

With Bergelin at his side, Borg won Wimbledon five times in a row, from 1976 to 1980, and six French Opens between 1974 and 1981. Until Rafael Nadal's triumphs this summer he was the last player to win the Wimbledon and French Open titles in the same year. He retired at the age of only 26 after losing his appetite for the game.

Bergelin was brought up in Alingsas in south-west Sweden, but it was after moving to Stockholm at 15 that his tennis career took off. An elegant player, he was national singles champion nine times. He reached three Wimbledon quarter-finals, became the first Swede to win a Grand Slam crown when he lifted the 1948 French Open title with Jaroslav Drobny and was a mainstay of Sweden's Davis Cup team, winning 62 of his 88 rubbers.

His finest hour came in the Interzone final against Australia in 1950, when he won his two singles against John Bromwich and Frank Sedgman. Sweden lost the tie 3-2, but Bergelin was rewarded with the Svenska Dagbladet Gold Medal, which is awarded for the country's greatest sporting achievement of the year.

Upon retirement in 1959 Bergelin moved to Saltsjo-Duvnas, a suburb of Stockholm, to sell Lambrettas and Vespas, though he made a brief comeback in 1965 to lead a young Swedish Davis Cup team. The national federation invited him to become Davis Cup captain in 1971. He agreed, on condition that he could take the country's best young players around the world for six months of the year to gain experience playing in international competition.

One of his first recruits was the14-year-old Borg, who had already been making a name for himself. Borg was 15 when Bergelin gave him his Davis Cup debut in 1972: in a result that was to typify his career, Borg came from two sets down to beat the New Zealander Onny Parun. Three years later Borg was the linchpin as Sweden won the Davis Cup for the first time, beating Czechoslovakia in the final. By then Borg had already announced his arrival as a major player. Working with Bergelin, he had turned professional at 17 in 1974, when he became the youngest ever winner of the French Open.

In their early years together Bergelin's cool-headed approach helped Borg to overcome what had been a fearful temper, which was ironic considering his later "Ice Man" image. Although Bergelin had some early input into the technical and tactical aspects of Borg's game, his contribution was limited. Borg had developed his own style – the result of a table tennis player suddenly adapting to the heavy tennis racket he had been given at the age of nine – and if it offended the purists Bergelin saw no reason to change what was a winning game. Borg's double-fisted backhand, which resembled a slap shot in ice hockey (the young Swede's favourite sport), was hardly a stroke of beauty, but it worked. Similarly, Bergelin was happy for Borg to stay on the baseline rather than come to the net, where he did not feel comfortable.

"I am a great believer in the individual style of each player," Bergelin once said. "The coach has to learn tounderstand the player and the wayhe plays and not try to impose a style on him."

Bergelin happily took on the tasks of making travel and hotel arrangements, arranging practice and looking after Borg's rackets, which were strung tighter than any other player's. The only person Borg trusted to string his rackets was a Swede based in Copenhagen. Bergelin would have to ensure that they went into every tournament with up to 40 rackets, which he would keep in his hotel room. On more than one occasion he was woken in the night by the noise of a string breaking and would get up to find the offending racket, cut out the remaining strings and return to bed. Bergelin also became Borg's masseur, having learned about the benefits of massage during his own playing days.

As Borg's fame grew, so did the demands on his time. Bergelin became his buffer, taking his phone calls and organising his life so that his responsibilities to the media, tournaments and sponsors did not adversely affect his tennis. Contrary to his pop star image, Borg was a model professional. He rarely partied, retreated to his hotel room in the evening and stayed aloof from most of his fellow professionals. Player and coach suited each other temperamentally, with Borg's cool demeanour reflected on the sidelines by the stoical Bergelin, although the coach was a genial figure away from the court.

"We are almost like father and son," Borg once told The New Yorker. "Lennart has a nice touch. He always gets you in a good mood and that is a big thing when you are playing professional tennis tournaments." Bergelin agreed: "One of the most important things I do for Bjorn is to be a good friend. That is not hard. We know each other well, we get along well, we enjoy talking tennis together, and when he feels tired and over-worked I can help out by being good company."

Bergelin was not surprised when Borg announced his retirement at 26, but for some years afterwards the two men drifted apart. When Borg made a brief and unsuccessful comeback nine years later he did not send for Bergelin. They became reconciled in later years, however, and renewed their friendship. In 2002 Bergelin was among the guests at Borg's third wedding, to a 35-year-old estate agent, Patricia Ostfeldt.

Paul Newman

Lennart Bergelin, tennis player and coach; born Alingsas, Sweden 10 June 1925; married (three sons); died Stockholm, 4 November 2008.

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