July 12, 2007

Borg’s five-in-a-row at Wimbledon lot tougher than Federer’s

By H Natarajan

“We play tennis, he plays something else. They should send him to another planet.”

That was Ilie Nastase, one of the most gifted players tennis has seen, talking about Bjorn Borg at the pomp of the latter’s playing career.

Nastase and Borg belonged to the 70s, an era that also boasted players like Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Vitas Gerualitis and Guillermo Vilas to name just a few. Equally importantly, the era had a bumper harvest of top quality players on the ATP Tennis circuit.

Comparing two players of different eras is avoidable. But if one were forced into a debate comparing Roger Federer’s record-equalling five in a row triumph at Wimbledon with Borg, one would have to place the former’s record on a higher scale for the sheer quality of the tennis prevalent in the 70s. The degree of difficult in winning each match was consistently far more demanding than it is today for a top player like Federer because of the quality factor.

Let us examine that point at length by putting under the scanner Borg’s domination at the Big W between 1976 and 1980.

In 1976, seeded No 4, Borg ploughed through the field. Though he had tough draw from Round One and all the way through, he beat them all in straight sets, including Brian Gottfried in the last 16, Guillermo Vilas in the quarters, Roscoe Tanner in the semis and Ilie Nastase in the final – the last four rivals being players who had figured in the top 10 of their ATP careers.

In 1977, Borg encountered three fierce five-set battles. In Round Two, he was down two sets to love against Australian Mark Edmonson – a player who went on to be ranked in the world’s top 15. Borg then had to overcome three more quality rivals in Nikki Pillic, Wojtek Fibak and Nastase who gave him anxious times before he made into the semis. The Swede then had to wage a five-set battle against Gerulaitis and another fiver against Jimmy Connors before he could retain his hold on the famed cup.

It’s a reflection of the depth in quality of the tennis in those years that a high majority of the players Borg met in 1976 and 1977 were in the top 10 or 20 or soon were to figure in that elite list. Even a player ranked way below in the ATP rankings could be a huge threat for top gun like Borg. Proof of that came in Borg’s opening round itself of the 1978 Wimbledon. At the other end of the net was a man who was more like a NBA player than an ATP Tour player. At 6’, 7” tall, Vic Amaya was intimidating. The American southpaw sent shockwaves around the stadium when he led two sets to one after taking the second set at 6-1. But Borg, as he had done so many times in his career, came back strongly to win in five. Though he had names like Peter McNamara, Jaime Fillol, Geoff Masters, Sandy Mayer, Tom Okker and Connors to contend with ahead, Borg had little difficult, except against for a dropped set against Fillol in the round of 32.

Then came 1979, a year Indian tennis fans will not forget in a hurry. Borg had beaten Tom Gorman, not too long ago a top tenner in the world, in four sets to set up a clash with Vijay Amritraj – one of the top players in the world with a reputation for defeating the best on his day. The Indian was up two sets to one and 4-1 in the 4th set before Borg came up with the Houdini act yet again. Borg then beat Hank Pfister, Brian Teacher in four sets, Tom Okker, Connors and then had to overcome two sets to one deficit to beat the big-serving Tanner in five set.

It could be argued that Borg had a relatively easy time in 1980 as compared to the earlier years, though he had to overcome the might of John McEnroe in five sets in the final – a match that is still hailed as one of the unforgettable classics of the game.

Borg raised visions of extending his unbeaten run in 1981 by rallying from a two-set loss to beat Connors in the semis, but tripped in the final against the genius of McEnroe. Only the fourth loss he had suffered at this hallowed venue from 51 matches. It was the end of the Borg era.

Federer did not take Wimbledon by storm after entering the ATP Tour. In 1999, he lost in the first round to Jiri Novak and a year later he lost yet again in the opening round to Yeygeny Kafelnikov. In 2001, he was beaten in the last eight by Britisher Tim Henman after packing off four-time champion Pete Sampras in the first round. In 2002, ranked No 9, he suffered yet another first round loss – this time to 154-ranked Croatian Mario Ancic. Then came the unbeaten run that Federer is eminently capable of extending it. Yet, when one looks at the names he has beaten enroute to the record-equalling feat, names like Hyung-Taik Lee, Stefan Koubek, Alex Bogdanovic, Alejandro Falla and Teimuraz Gabashvili, it does not excite the tennis fan of the Borg Era.

But what will rank Borg’s five in a row ahead of Federer is his winning the French and Wimbledon in the same year. It’s one of the most difficult doubles to achieve because they are played on vastly contrasting surfaces that demand different skills. And adjusting quickly from clay to grass is something that even the best of players through different eras have found it highly challenging and frustrating. For all his near invincibility in the game, Federer has failed in that pursuit. It’s a tribute to the genius of Borg that he achieved it thrice, in 1978, 1979, 1980, and could have made it four in a row had he not lost the 1981 Wimbledon final. Borg’s six successive Wimbledon singles finals – a record since the scrapping of the challenge round in 1922 – alongside his six French Open titles between 1974 and 1981 is something that truly boggles the mind.

If Federer has not been able to match Borg’s feat on clay at Roland Garros it’s because of one man – Rafael Nadal, who has beaten him in two successive finals at Paris. The Spaniard has often been his nemesis and Federer’s clashes with Nadal have seen some of the best tennis in the modern era. Borg did not have one single rival who was as intimidating on clay as Nadal. The Spaniard has now won three successive titles at the French Open without losing a single match since his debut there. Borg, in contrast, had faced five different rivals in six of the finals at the French Open.

If Borg had notched up the double of winning at Paris and Wimbledon three years in a row and missing a fourth by losing in the final, Federer has won the Wimbledon and US Open singles titles for three consecutive years (2004-2006) and has now put himself in line for a four in a row by winning this year at Wimbledon. But winning the Wimbledon and US Open is not regarded as difficult as the French and Wimbledon because of the proximity of the two majors and also the fact that they are vastly different surfaces. In fact, many clay court specialists give Wimbledon the miss and many grass court players give Paris a miss. And this includes champion players like Andre Agassi. Ivan Lendl, for example, hated Wimbledon and said that “grass is for cows”.

One has to make a difference between a good and a great player, and a great player in one era will always be great in any era. Federer is already assured of a place among the pantheons of the greats and looks almost certain to end up his career as been widely hailed as the greatest ever. He has been ranked No 1 since February 2, 2004 – a record for most successive week at the top by a male player. His domination on the sport is reminiscent of Jahangir Khan in squash, Ed Moses in hurdles and Rocky Marciano in boxing. The stats are devastating. He is the first man to win three separate Grand Slam champions three times. He has won seven of the previous nine Grand Slam tournaments, and 11 of the last 17.

While Federer is likely to surpass all to be hailed as the greatest ever, Borg’s five in a row at Wimbledon would get a higher billing for the class of the field in the 70s as well as his achievements at the French Open coming into the premier grass court tournament.

As for us mortals, it’s a pleasure and privilege to have lived through two eras that saw the two take the sport of tennis to new heights of excellence.