Holding serve against the Borg mystique
Swedish teen pursuing a sport few have played as well as his father did
When he was 10, Leo Borg sat his mother down and told her something that made her cry:
He wanted to be a tennis player.
Until then, Patricia Borg had quietly held out hope that the athletically gifted Leo might choose some other path. When he was a bit younger, coaches from a soccer club told her that he was one of the brightest talents they had scouted in a while. Patricia liked to remind Leo of that from time to time.
Tennis though? That was the realm of her husband, Bjorn Borg, who won 11 Grand Slam singles titles, claiming a place among the best players ever. To Patricia, the idea that her son would take a liking to the game, and that he would show such promise in it, seemed almost a cruel twist. His father’s shadow, she thought, would always be too long.
“And so I was crying,” she said. “We tried to get him into another sport, just so he wouldn’t be compared with his father. It would be so much easier.” “I was scared,” she added. Raising an aspiring athlete can be perilous for any parent. How do you provide encouragement without being overbearing? How do you balance precocity with just being a child? These questions are magnified and multiplied when you are a famous athlete.
Bjorn and Patricia wrestled with these concerns themselves. Eventually, their hesitance gave way to a determination to handle it right.
Now 15, Leo is one of the best young players in Sweden. He trains twice a day, before and after school, and when he finishes his compulsory education next spring, he will commit to tennis full time.
“He’s always going to be reminded of me, and that’s kind of a burden for him,” Bjorn said. “So I don’t put pressure on him, and I try to make sure that the life he lives doesn’t give him any pressure. That’s our task. That’s our way of helping him. Then, the only person who can put pressure on him is himself.”
Last month at the Stockholm Open, on the court of the Royal Tennis Club, Leo received a prize of 100,000 Swedish krona — around $14,500 — as the top player under 16 this year, when he reached the finals of the four biggest junior tournaments in Sweden and won two of them.
The Royal Tennis Club, outfitted with its original wooden stands, felt like a living monument to Swedish tennis history. There were photographs and illustrations of Bjorn everywhere. And because the clothing brand named for him was one of the tournament’s sponsors, the entire event staff — ball kids, ushers, ticket collectors, everyone — wore clothing with the word “Borg” printed in big letters.
“I understand it,” Leo said of the omnipresence of his father. “It’s not bothering me so much. I’ve always known who is my dad.”
That day, Leo helped out as a hitting partner for pros such as Tennys Sandgren and Chung Hyeon. His vibe of unperturbed, teenage insouciance made his parents’ initial concerns seem almost ridiculous.
His first exposure to tennis, he said, occurred when he was 6, thwacking a ball against a wall in his paternal grandmother’s basement. (His father, as a child, did the same against his mother’s garage door.) Leo loved playing tennis with his father when he was younger, but he said they rarely had the chance anymore.
When asked if he had ever seen one of his father’s matches, Leo shrugged.
“No, actually,” he said. “None. I don’t think so.”
He thought about it some more. “No,” he added, finally. “Not a single match.”
His parents laughed when the story was relayed to them. Leo’s favourite player growing up was Rafael Nadal; Patricia said her son was indifferent to her hus- band’s accomplishments.
“You tried once, when he was small,” she said to her husband. “You told him, like, ‘Go more forward.’ And Leo was like: ‘Ugh! You don’t know anything about tennis!’ And Bjorn said, ‘OK, I will never say anything about tennis.’ ”
Bjorn has been happy to keep it that way. Rickard Billing, 46, who has coached Leo for the past five years, said the Borgs were calmer than the average tennis parents, and calculatedly detached. Billing described the coach-parent relationship with his former hero as pleasantly uncomplicated.
“I’m a player and a parent,” Bjorn told Billing the first time they met. “The coaching is your business.”
There was one time, though, that Leo did try to embody his father. When he was 12, he and his mother responded to an online advertisement seeking young actors in Stockholm who could play tennis. Only later did they realize the role: to play Bjorn, as a child, in the film Borg vs. McEnroe.
At first, Bjorn told his wife he was against the idea: Was it smart to let his son pretend to be him in a big international movie? “I tried to protect him,” Bjorn said.
Janus Metz, the Danish director of the film, was unsure, too: Would the tennis legend try to assert some control over the film’s narrative now that his son was involved? But Metz’s reservations vanished when he met Leo. The physical resemblance, he said, was striking. But more than that, Metz perceived in the boy’s eyes a vague yet familiar quality: “that shy vulnerability and sort of hell-bent willpower that’s so special to Bjorn.”
Leo’s scenes included one in which he re-created his father’s childhood garage-door practice sessions and one that required him to throw a tantrum oncourt.
“I thought he was a born actor,” Patricia said. “He was so good. I was saying maybe he should go into acting.”
In the end, Leo’s success will be determined on the court, by him. He said his goal now was to grow stronger, to add muscle to his spaghetti-thin frame. After completing school next year, he will continue to be based in Stockholm.
His parents are committed to supporting him, perhaps hoping, half-seriously, that he still may have a change of heart.
“I’m still trying to find another way,” Patricia said, smiling. “Baseball?”
“It’s not bothering me so much. I’ve always known who is my dad.” LEO BORG TENNIS PLAYER
When Leo Borg first told his mother he wanted to be a tennis player, she cried, thinking it would be too much pressure.
Bjorn Borg, Leo’s father, won 11 Grand Slam titles and has a clothing line named after him.