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Surface Winner : Borg Began Making Grass-Clay Connection With the First of Five Wimbledon Titles 20 Years Ago


WIMBLEDON, England — Twenty years ago, something improbable and unexpected happened here. A clay-court specialist--perhaps the prototypal clay-court player--won the Wimbledon men's singles title. The man was Bjorn Borg.

It began a remarkable streak that seems unlikely to be duplicated, five consecutive titles on grass, difficult enough, but Borg also won six French Open clay-court titles in eight years, a versatility that does not exist today.

Pete Sampras, the best player of his generation, has won three consecutive Wimbledon titles but no French Opens. Today's best clay-court player, Thomas Muster, is 0-4 at Wimbledon and has never made it past the first round.

Borg, 40, plays on the Nuveen Tour for players over 35, with events held mostly on clay. It is the Swede's most natural surface, the best forum for his heavy topspin and baseline prowess. Players used to call the French Open the Borg Invitational, so dominating was he.

Which makes his success at Wimbledon so unusual. Borg seldom played on grass outside of the All England Club. His record at Wimbledon was 51-4; elsewhere on grass he was 6-6.

And he wasn't dominant in the other two Grand Slam events, losing four U.S. Open finals and never reaching an Australian Open final.

With Wimbledon beginning next week, here's a look at his titles and some comments from his peers about what allowed Borg to move from clay to grass with such ease:


Borg had failed to win his third consecutive French Open title. Frustrated, he dedicated himself to grass. Borg drilled himself five hours a day at the Cumberland Club in North London.

The work nearly failed him when he pulled a stomach muscle in the first week. He got through his last four singles matches with pre-match cortisone injections and by applying freeze spray on his abdomen during changeovers.

Four weeks after his 20th birthday, he beat Ilie Nastase in the final, 6-4, 6-2, 9-7, to become the third-youngest men's singles champion in Wimbledon history. Borg became the first man since Chuck McKinley in 1963 to win every set.

Eddie Dibbs, a clay-court specialist, never beat Borg:

"On the clay, he would never miss a ball, never. People don't realize what a difficult surface grass is to win on, unpredictable. It's the toughest. You might have thought you had a chance if you were playing Borg on grass, but once you got out there, you had no chance. Mentally, he was so tough. Nothing would bother him. He never got mad at a bad bounce, and on grass, you got them every other ball."


One of Wimbledon's most memorable matches was the semifinal in which Borg faced Vitas Gerulaitis, and the two produced breathtaking shots. Borg won, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6, and went on to face his nemesis, Jimmy Connors, in the final.

As expected of the players--but not of the surface--the match was a baseline battle. Borg held a 4-0 lead in the fifth set, then faltered as Connors won four straight to 4-4. Connors double-faulted in ninth game to lose serve and match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7. 6-4.

Gene Mayer lost to Borg in the quarterfinals in 1980:

"The mistake players have made over the years on grass is that they have played too much in the classic grass style, getting away from their strengths. Borg never changed his game for grass, he modified it. He never served better than at Wimbledon.

"He always had tight matches and was on the ropes. There was electric excitement when he was down; he could dig them out. The French [Open], literally, he could have won for 30 years. On grass, bottom line, Bjorn's game was not well suited. It was the sheer tenacity and the unwillingness to lose. That was his greatest strength."


Borg had problems in the early rounds. He nearly lost in the first round to Victor Amaya. Amaya, 6 feet 7 and 220 pounds, had a huge serve and took a lead of two sets to one, and 3-1 in the fourth with a break point on Borg's serve, but the Swede saved the match.

In the final against Connors, Borg unveiled sharp volleys and a canny new weapon, a sliced backhand approach to Connors' forehand. Borg won, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, and became the first man since Fred Perry in 1934-36 to win three consecutive Wimbledon singles titles.

Dick Stockton beat Borg a few times but never played him on grass:

"He proved that he was a much better all-around player than people gave him credit for. He had the ability to hit great shots on the run, he was quick. He could intimidate with his serve. He had great hands. I'd see him change his swing, reacting to a bad bounce, then get the ball back for a winner.

"Even when I beat him one time, I almost went through an entire set without winning a point. He was that good. When he was tuned in, he could embarrass people. There was no way to attack him. You'd think, 'OK, bring him to the net,' but then you'd have to produce a shot to beat him.

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