Borg Working Out of His Troubled Retirement

Newsday

For so long, Bjorn Borg wanted to flee from the tremendous pressure of being the world's No. 1 tennis player and the crowds of shrieking teen-age girls yanking out clumps of his blond hair. He was sure retirement would be different, that he could rest, spend his millions, live happily ever after. He had no idea what was ahead.

By all appearances, Borg probably did not try to commit suicide two weeks ago in Milan, Italy. But once he ended his triumphant career and escaped to his seaside villa in Monte Carlo, Borg's life grew troubled and uncertain, enduring a series of disappointments he has only begun to reverse.

"I just have the feeling that he's bored blind," said Mary Carillo, the former tennis pro now a television commentator. "I really think that's his biggest problem. For so many years tennis was absolutely his touchstone, the thing that always gave him his identity, made him Bjorn Borg. Now, he doesn't have that any more."

Instead, Borg has bounced through a few business ventures. His first marriage collapsed, an affair with a young Swedish model produced a child out of wedlock, and his wedding with Loredana Berte, the saucy Italian pop singer, has been postponed. Borg, 32--wealthy, famous, handsome--is no longer the reclusive star who ruled his sport in the late '70s with hardly a show of emotion.

He was cool and efficient, so poised that the Stockholm newspapers wrote, "Is e magen." He has ice in his stomach.

Borg, in fact, was coldly businesslike even in childhood. He was 9 when his father, Rune, brought home a racket won in a Ping-Pong tournament, and Borg, obsessed, soon was slapping a ball against the family's garage door for hours without a trace of fatigue. At 14, he left school to play in the juniors. At 16, he turned pro.

"He had unbelievable presence, even back then," said Bob Kain of IMG, the management agency that represented Borg. "He was a kid who took whatever happened in stride, who never got bothered and who always kept a lot of things inside."

Within a year, Borg would defeat Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors, two of the best players in the world, and never crack a smile. When he lost to John Newcombe in the final of the 1974 WCT Championship in Dallas, half of Sweden's population of 9 million stayed up until 5 a.m. to hear the play-by-play broadcast on radio; but Borg only shrugged.

He was a hero and a heartthrob, yet all the while, and into his 20s, he liked to read Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) comics on the plane.

"He was a sensation," said Nastase, who was among Borg's closest friends on the tour. "He was a teen-ager at Wimbledon, so young. He was like Boris Becker, only bigger. He loved tennis. The other things--he didn't love that."

While Borg was winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles in 1976-80, he needed bodyguards to get him to the court and past the rows of schoolgirls tugging at his shirt and stroking his face. Often, he arrived at an event in a chauffeured limousine already dressed in his tennis clothes with a bag of rackets in hand because it was easier to make his getaway later. He'd shower back at his room.

The invasion of his privacy became so legendary that two years ago Mats Wilander was asked how badly he wanted to become No. 1. "Not so badly," he replied. "I don't want to end up like Borg."

Although Borg earned more than $36 million in career prize money and more than doubled that in endorsements and investments, he gradually began to lose interest in competition. After his ranking slipped to No. 4 in 1981, he took five months off, briefly staged a comeback, then left the tour again. By January 1983--at the age of 26--he had had it.

"He hated that whole year before," Kain said. "He wasn't enjoying the tennis. He couldn't envision being No. 4 or 5. That wasn't for him. But he also didn't think he could work as hard as necessary to get back to No. 1 again, because he'd worked so hard all his life and now he was tired. So he had to quit. He really had no choice."

Said Carillo: "He invented burn-out."

At just about the same time, his marriage to Mariana Simionescu, a former Romanian tennis player, was breaking up, partly because Borg, an only child, desperately wanted to start a family. Despite visits to specialists in Switzerland and Austria, Simionescu was unable to have a baby. Borg, suddenly restless, left.

He long had frustrated gossip columnists by avoiding the night life when he was in training, but once he was retired and single again, Borg frequently was seen in jet-set hang-outs. He had changed.

"Tennis is a game where players have to be almost single-minded in their pursuit to be the best, and they have to start so young," said Dr. James Loehr, a sports psychologist for the United States Tennis Association. "In the case of Borg, you have someone who gets on the fast track, who goes from childhood to adulthood so quickly he's never had the time to be an adolescent, make friends, do the things kids do . . . Borg reached his goal in his teens. But then what does he do? If you're Borg, you've lived a one-dimensional life. Now who are you? What happens is, young adults in this situation try to relive their childhood in some fashion, but you can't recapture it. It's gone. And when you try, there's almost always problems associated with that."

Borg danced with models in New York. He suntanned on the French Riviera. He was a judge in a beauty pageant in Stockholm one night when one of the contestants caught his eye. Her name was Jannike Bjorling, and she was 17.

The relationship lasted three years and although Borg and Bjorling never married, they have a son, Robin, 3. Last November, Borg became engaged to Berte, 38, who has posed nude for Italian magazines, but their marriage scheduled for Feb. 26 was postponed after the Catholic Church refused to allow the wedding. He also is reportedly battling to retain partial custody of his son.

So, when Borg was rushed to a Milan hospital to have his stomach pumped after swallowing an undisclosed amount of barbiturates, several tennis players past and present easily believed the initial reports of a suicide attempt. Even after Borg's version of a mild case of food poisoning was supported by his speedy release, there was a lingering portrait of Borg, lost and unhappy.

"It seems to me that he hasn't sunk his teeth into anything substantial," said former pro Arthur Ashe, who played Borg 17 times. "He's sort of drifting, I think. In many ways, it's classic. Here's a guy who performed so well in athletic competition and now the expectations away from the court are bound to be unrealistically high. It's funny, but I was talking with someone about people who might have a tough time adjusting to life after tennis and the one name that kept coming up was Borg."

He may finally have found his niche with the Bjorn Borg Design Group, a successful European clothing line that is branching out into perfumes, shoes and jogging suits. And he still is much in demand to play exhibition tournaments and make personal appearances. He plays tennis, for fun, twice a week.

Yet, nothing seems to drive Borg these days as much as the effort he puts into raising Robin. Friends have described Borg as a patient, doting father who often brings his son along on business trips and vacations without a nursemaid. Borg, they say, appeared to get pleasure just from watching Robin scribble with crayons or from changing his diaper.

"He's, like, the greatest father of all time," Carillo said. "He loves that kid. That kid has kept him whole, has helped him concentrate on something passionately, the way he did with tennis. I think Robin has filled that void in his life, kept him connected to the universe."

"Bjorn's had his ups and downs, but I really think he's coming around, that he's happier," Kain said. "He's found some focus."

Kain telephoned Borg last week, concerned that the public suspicions of a suicide attempt might anger him or embarrass him or set him back again. Borg said, "Don't worry. I'll handle it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°