Quality of Life

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 /by

Despite my huge respect for Miguel Seabra's analytical and observational powers, I think he overstated the case for Rafael Nadal being "out of balance", although he pretty much nailed it on The Mighty Fed being a player in absolute concert with his own bad self. Nadal spanked Tommy Robredo, everyone's favorite lightweight whipping boy, today in Shanghai. It isn't exactly stop-the-presses news, but the match got me thinking about a conversation I had with Doug MacCurdy, one of the Wise Men of tennis coaching, just the other day.

MacCurdy, a consultant with the ITF Development office, has made something like eight trips to China since 1986, for periods as long as a year. While discussing the warp-speed globalization of the game (The NBA has been around for ages, comparatively, and it was only discovered by Europe in recent years; the NFL and MLB still haven't won over our Asian and Euro friends to nearly the same degree as tennis), we got to talking about Bjorn Borg and his impact. MacCurdy made an observation that really pulled me up straight, and I'd like to know what some of our elders think about the subject.

"Borg had tremendous world-wide influence," MacCurdy said. "Style-wise,he probably changed the way the game is played. One of the reasons the Swedes who were right on his heels (Wilander, Nystrom, Jarryd, Sundstrom et al) did so well is that they were playing modern tennis long before anyone else."

Just how, I wondered, did MacCurdy define "modern tennis"?

"Well, it's based partly on 'looseness.' By adopting variations on the western grip to generate great topspin, these guys and their successors (almost anyone in the mix at the top of the game today, perhaps personified by Nadal) were able to hit more freely and open up the game. It wasn't so much the loosening of the grip, per se, but the way it enabled them to strike the ball. Loosening the grip let them to get racket-head acceleration that was previously unheard of. The reigning philosophy before Borg called for a firm grip and guiding the ball, especially for those players who were inclined to come to the net."

Bjorn This, I think, is a gem of an observation. Oh, you could argue that Ilie Nastase and a host of other talented stars (including Rod Laver) knew a thing or two about "looseness" and topspin.But it was Borg who brought the quality into play for his less spectacularly talented peers, and generations to follow. He paved the way for grinders, short on touch and imagination, to strike quickly and aggressively - think Jim Courier, or even Andre Agassi.

So there's another feather in Borg's cap. It's funny, but I don't think any great player who's on the short list for GOAT has suffered as much bad publicity. Too frequently he's remembered as the guy who quit - worse yet, the guy driven to sulk like Achilles in his tent when John McEnroe turned up on the scene. And, of course, he's the guy who had "problems." The poster child for every maladjusted superstar who ever failed to make a graceful transition to post-tennis life. The guy who wanted to auction off his trophies in a sad coda to a career gone wrong.

Borg certainly had issues. The late Gene Scott, former Davis Cup player, agent, tournament promoter (he founded the Kremlin Cup) and publisher (Tennis Week), put it best when he said, "Bjorn was a blond, pale, wholesome Swede who was fascinated by and attracted to the 'dark' side of things." There's some truth in that; it wasn't an easy attraction to engage in a positive way.

But let's look at his career in perspective. He was the first European tennis superstar of the Open era - and a role model to the cradle-to-grave legions whose pro-from-birth status helped them make up for some formidable disadvantages, including scant resources, difficult climate, lack of a tennis tradition and a developmental  infrastructure - think teen-aged Marcos Baghdatis, having to leave his native Cyprus and crying himself to sleep on many a night at his adoptive home in France.

Borg also was as pure and indomitable a competitor as any player, ever. You might not choose him to play if your own life hung in the balance (Borg, after all, was not all that interested in anyone else's problems, which may help explain why he had so many of his own; his self-absorption certainly set him up for some of the severe blows he was dealt later in life), but his competitive spirit was nonpareil. Other players have responded well to pressure, managing to play their best at the times when it most mattered. But Borg did so with an aplomb and imperturbability that was downright preternatural and danged close to unique. He epitomized "courage" in the Hemingway-esque sense of showing "grace under fire." In the Tribal patois, he had Wilanders before he invented Wilander.

Borg's great shortcoming, if that's the right word, was his inflexibility. He was a strong as a graphite fiber, but just as brittle when taken to the breaking point, which was a place where few could actually take him. When young McEnroe accomplished that, he snapped - so surprisingly and resoundingly that I went from thinking "graphite" to "stick of uncooked linguine." The result was a prematurely sawed-off resume. He quit the game cold at 25 and, an aborted comeback excepted, never played main tour tennis again. Given his prowess on clay and a reasonable degree of dedication, he might have retired from the Hurley-Burley-of Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow and gone on to add three, five, six more French Open titles to his take.

I think the numbers bear me out that Borg was a potential GOAT and titan of tennis cut off at the knees, even if he did do the sawing himself. He was 16 when he played his first major at Roland Garros, and he still reached the fourth round. After that, he made the singles finals every year but one (1976 quarterfinals) until he disappeared. His worst result at Wimbledon was a third-round loss in his second year there (he was 17). The following year, he made the quarters and then made the finals every year after that. He was a four-time runner-up at the U.S. Open and failed to reach the fourth round on just one occasion (1974, second-round loss, and it was injury related!).

So the career spanned eight years, 1973 to 1981. Add five years at the back end and who knows where he stands in the GOAT debate. In fact, there's no better proof for the importance of longevity in that debate than Borg's current "distant third" status (we're not counting Roger Federer here, as he's still a work in progress). But nobody - not even Monica Seles -  has a better eight-year record than Borg. He won at least one major every year that he played after his rookie season of 1973.

One other quality that makes Borg a player for the ages is the degree to which he was a European from a small nation with no tennis tradition to speak of, yet he had an appetite for glory that would do the heirs of Laver or Billie Jean King proud. Just the other day, I was talking with Steggy,  and I told her that the increasing Euro-centricity of the game may be having a curious side effect on both sides of the gender fence. Most of us agree that Americans - whoops, sorry! Gringos - tend to be more driven, and at the very least we're much more willing to trade "quality-of-life" for "quantity-of-success".

In tennis, these characteristics manifest themselves as an insatiable appetite for achievement and a penchant for scorekeeping - my own thoughts on Warrior Moments and the GOAT debate probably represent the gestalt. Therefore, I'm particularly impressed with a Borg, a Federer, a Steffi Graf or Boris Becker - all premium, nuclear-grade competitors. The way I see it, those players transcend their cultures; their individual drive overwhelms all the other factors that determine the degree to which they feel a compulsion to succeed - and to keep succeeding, in spite of the toll it may take on the quality of their lives.

But many other great players in recent years don't appear to have similar drives. On the WTA tour, particularly, career-management and quality of life sometimes seem to be higher priorities these days than the one represented by Al Davis's perfectly blunt admonition, "Just win, Baby!" In this case, it's even true for U.S. players, as the Williams sisters have demonstrated. But look at Kim Clijsters, and the way she's worked at positioning herself as a Belgian icon and personage, seemingly with more gusto than she brings to the traditional mission of winning majors and securing a place in the history of the game.

Amelieball Champagne Kimmy's countrywoman, Justine Henin-Hardenne, routinely repeats the phrase, "I must take care of myself first" in a way that suggest that she doesn't accept the common, yuppie achiever's battle cry of:  He or she who dies with the most toys (substitute "major titles" here) wins. Borg, Graf, et al accepted that premise; in fact, to them, winning was taking care of themselves. Amelie Mauresmo is a pretty good example of someone who has a very strong idea of the kind of life she wants to live, but is now making an increasingly successful effort to integrate it with a newly flourishing ambition.

On the men's side, Carlos Moya is a pretty good example of a good guy - a gentleman, really - who appears never to have allowed ambition to take control of his life. The phrase "quality-of-life" makes me think of him. Others who won majors despite seeming to be cut from the same cloth include former Roland Garros champs Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gaston Gaudio. It's a tricky call, of course; who knows if any of those players had another Grand Slam in them?

What we do know is that they don't appear to have had an overpowering interest in finding it. Just hold them in contrast to Nadal, who falls into the company of Borg and Federer on that count. Or contrast them with Andy Roddick, who is not only a contender, but who appears to view himself as someone who must be contending for majors if he is to enjoy life and career at all. It's a given: simple as that.

The French, fittingly enough, epitomize this tendency to cling to quality-of-life above all other things, and to such an extent that they haven't produced a single male Grand Slam singles champ since Yannick Noah in 1983, despite having a formidable development program that has churned out oodles of players with drop-dead gorgeous games. Having a thriving and lucrative clay-circuit culminating with a Grand Slam whose status has really blossomed in the last two decades only constitutes that much more of a reason - and temptation - to Just Say No to overweening ambition.

Looking at South America, the nations there seem to have embraced the European model rather than the U.S. or Aussie one. Gustavo Kuerten, like Moya a former World No. 1, had no great ambition to win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. He was content to stay in his comfort zone. Chile's Marcelo Rios, another former No. 1, got fed up with the daily grind of being a top player.

One-Slam Wonder used to be term applied to individuals who happened to overachieve, often by virtue of circumstance. But in most cases, it seems to be an even better description of an attitude and state-of-mind. As tennis grows increasingly Euro-centric, I expect to see more rather than fewer One-Slam Wonders. Fair enough - far be it from me to tell others what they should or shouldn't care about. But all this makes me appreciate the Federers and Borgs more than ever.

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