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.

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