Borg steps into his fa­ther’s shadow

He’s al­ready por­trayed his fa­ther in a movie; now comes the hard part for the teenage ten­nis star

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - An­drew Keh

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, Björn Borg, who won 11 Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles over a rel­a­tively brief ca­reer, claim­ing a place among the great­est play­ers ever. To Pa­tri­cia Borg, there­fore, the idea that her son would take such 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.”

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? As sports fig­ures like Michael Jor­dan and Joe Mon­tana and Zine­dine Zi­dane have learned, these ques­tions are mag­ni­fied and mul­ti­plied when you are one of the most fa­mous ath­letes in the world.

Björn and Pa­tri­cia Borg wres­tled with these con­cerns them­selves. Even­tu­ally, their hes­i­tance gave way to a de­ter­mi­na­tion to han­dle it right.

Now 15, Leo Borg 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. His am­bi­tion is to be a pro­fes­sional player. He and his par­ents know there is a long way still to go.

“He’s al­ways go­ing to be re­minded of me, and that’s kind of a bur­den for him,” Björn Borg 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 Borg re­ceived a prize of 100,000 Swedish krona (¤9,750) 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.

Liv­ing mon­u­ment

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 Björn Borg 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 Borg 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 Borg helped out as a hit­ting part­ner for pros like Ten­nys Sand­gren and Chung Hyeon. He wore shorts, high socks and a back­ward cap over his sway­ing blond hair, and 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 six, whack­ing 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, as if to make sure. “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 com­i­cally in­dif­fer­ent to her hus­band’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 Björn said, ‘Okay, I will never say any­thing about ten­nis.’”

Björn Borg 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 said he idolised Björn Borg grow­ing up and ad­mit­ted he still had a poster of him at home. But he de­scribed the coach-par­ent re­la­tion­ship with his for­mer hero as pleas­antly un­com­pli­cated.

“I’m a player and a par­ent,” Borg told Billing the first time they met. “The coach­ing is your busi­ness.”

Cast­ing a shadow

There was one time, though, that Leo Borg 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 re­alise the role: to play Björn Borg, as a child, in the film Borg vs McEn­roe.

At first, Björn Borg told his wife he was against the idea: Was it smart to let his son pre­tend to be him in a big in­ter­na­tional movie, given all his con­cerns about cast­ing a shadow over him? “I tried to pro­tect him,” Borg 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 hell­bent willpower that’s so spe­cial to Björn.”

Leo Borg’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 on court.

“It was so real,” Metz said. “I could get lost in his face and his eyes from be­hind the cam­era, take af­ter take, be­cause it would just spill out of him.”

Björn Borg came around to the film, too. Metz said Borg cried dur­ing the film­ing when he showed him a rough cut of one of the fi­nal scenes of the movie, which de­picted the quiet mo­ments af­ter his fi­nal Wim­ble­don win in 1980 with the melan­choly song Stars, made fa­mous by Nina Si­mone, play­ing in the back­ground.

Af­ter­ward, Pa­tri­cia Borg felt a flicker of hope again, how­ever briefly, that her son might have found a non-ten­nis call­ing. “I thought he was a born ac­tor,” she said, beam­ing. “He was so good. I was say­ing maybe he should go into act­ing.”

It was not to be. She laughed as she re­counted a trip she and her son took to Cyprus this summer for a tour­na­ment. On a char­ter flight there, they were told that

Borg vs McEn­roe would be shown on their sched­uled flight home. At her son’s re­quest, they flew back a day later than planned, on a dif­fer­ent plane.

Dis­trac­tions

Un­der­stand­ing that his pres­ence would be a dis­trac­tion in many ten­nis clubs around the world, Björn Borg has left it to his wife to do much of the trav­el­ling with their son. But dis­trac­tions have oc­curred, any­way.

Last year, at Les Pe­tits As, a pres­ti­gious ju­nior tour­na­ment in Tarbes, France, Leo Borg un­ex­pect­edly had to do a news con­fer­ence and was fol­lowed by a pack of pho­tog­ra­phers who had re­alised he was the son of the ten­nis great.

Pa­tri­cia Borg said they had to run away at one point to elude a pack of peo­ple fol­low­ing them. Billing said there were adults ask­ing to take self­ies with the teenager. In his sec­ond match, Billing said, Leo Borg lost on pur­pose. The com­mo­tion had over­whelmed him. He wanted to go home.

“He was not pre­pared for that,” Björn Borg said of the episode, which he did not wit­ness. “I felt bad be­cause he felt ter­ri­ble.”

Yet Borg thought it could be an im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ence for his son. If Leo con­tin­ues on this as­cen­dant path, the at­ten­tion will only grow.

Nina Wen­ner­strom, who has been work­ing with the Borgs for a year as Leo’s agent, said she was nav­i­gat­ing the del­i­cate path be­tween ac­knowl­edg­ing the fa­mous fam­ily name and let­ting the teenager forge a dis­tinct iden­tity. This year, he signed his first spon­sor­ship deals, with Fila, whose cloth­ing his fa­ther wore, and the equip­ment com­pany Babo­lat.

“I think he and the peo­ple sur­round­ing him are han­dling it very well, recog­nis­ing it, but not fo­cus­ing on it,” she said of the fa­mil­ial con­nec­tion, “be­cause that’s not go­ing to help him achieve his dream. In sport, there are no short­cuts. It doesn’t mat­ter what the name of your par­ent is.”

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 while he looks for op­por­tu­ni­ties to play and train over­seas.

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 Borg said, smil­ing. “Base­ball?”

– New York Times ser­vice

You told him, like, ‘Go more for­ward.’ And Leo was like: ‘Ugh! You don’t know any­thing about ten­nis!’ And Björn said, ‘Okay, I will never say any­thing about ten­nis’ That’s not go­ing to help him achieve his dream. In sport, there are no short­cuts. It doesn’t mat­ter what the name of your par­ent is

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: CASPER HEDBERG/THE NEW YORK TIMES/GETTY

Leo Borg, son of ten­nis leg­end Bjorn Borg, is one of Swe­den’s best ten­nis prospects­but his mother Pa­tri­cia (bot­tom right) had hoped her son would pur­sue a call­ing out­side of ten­nis.

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