We could argue ad nauseum as to who the greatest tennis player of all time is, but that argument isn’t that interesting (probably Federer [surprise], but I’ll leave that for another post).
What is interesting to me is why Bjorn Borg is the coolest tennis player of all time.
Tennis players are, by their very nature, cool: they possess strength manifested in elegant athleticism (Nadal’s brute strength and S. Williams and Sharapova’s grunts being the energetic exceptions that come to mind), individuality, preternatural focus and determination, primal mental acuity, and sheer fortitude. Imagine the mental strength necessary to be that one lone individual playing the game at groundstroke speeds of 100 MPH in front of tens of thousands of people. Imagine that you didn’t have any teammates to blame for your shortfalls…that when you failed, it was absolutely and irrevocably your failure. Imagine having to be judged that way every day, against opponents that have trained themselves as hard as you have, for years since maybe infancy.
And that’s most professional athletes and any professional tennis player. But I key on Borg for what reason? What makes him cooler than Jimmy Connors?
Borg is cooler because we have less recognition there. He’s unknown. Some of that is a product of him being Swedish and owning a very particular brand of Norwegian stoicism. Another is that he was, for the most part, emotionless. A steely machine. He wasn’t McEnroe (who was cool in spite of—or maybe because of [I don’t know, maybe I need another post to explore McEnroe’s cool]—giving a shit so bad that he sometimes self-sabotaged because he couldn’t check his emotions. With Borg you never knew what was really going on inside of his head.
Now, most of this is supposition. I only have youtube clips and low resolution pictures to paint my idea of Borg and why I think he’s cool. Perusing those, a couple of things jump out to me: his awesome hair/facial hair combination complete with equally awesome and carefully placed sweatband, the perfectly fitted Fila apparel and his cold, dead eyes.
Mostly Borg makes me think of people that I genuinely knew and understood. I think they’re cool, yeah, but they’re not cool. I would characterize them as good people, or friendly, or generous, or intelligent, or articulate, et al. None of the people I think I understand I would ever classify as cool right off the bat. And I think that’s why Borg is cool. He’s the other. He’s the unknown.
Mysteries fascinate people. So do cliffhangers. When those are resolved, though, people are more often than not disappointed. Think of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography post-Unbreakable. People hate his films because they suspect the payoff to be better than the reality. That his twists will be as interesting as the build-up (I don’t know, I guess I was probably the only person in America who enjoyed both Signs and the Village).
Parting shot: Borg won 11 majors in his career. He never played the Australian Open after he was 18. He won his last major when he was 25 after which he essentially retired. According to Arthur Ashe (a person after which the center court in the US Open is named, no less), “But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn’t mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody.”
Wikipedia says that Borg’s resting heart rate was rumored to be 38 and proven to hover around 50.
Borg’s American counterpart: Barry Sanders. Tell me I’m wrong.