Fifty years ago in Paris, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert each won their very first Grand Slam titles. The rest is history.

For this significant anniversary, we asked veteran journalists Peter Bodo, Joel Drucker and Jon Levey to the roundtable for a discussion about these two iconic champions and their enduring legacies—which started at Roland Garros, 1974. (For more, go to

Was Roland Garros 1974 the most significant Slam ever, in terms of forecasting tennis’ future?

Bodo: History is big, history is sloppy. Not all turning points are clean, precise and without caveats, but here goes: the 1974 tournament at Roland Garros was the point at which tennis discovered the value of defense. Up to that point, Roland Garros was still the outlier among the majors—the last major to allow international players (1925) into what still is the de facto national championships of France, the one with the weird dirt court in a sea of grass.

The majority of the world’s great players in the 1970s were attacking/serve-and-volley experts: Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King. . .then came “Iceborg” and the “Ice Maiden” with their two-handed backhands and aversion to the net. Over the ensuing years, changes to racquet head-size and materials, strings and court surfaces kept disproportionately rewarding returners/defensive players, and here we are.

Drucker: The case can be made that the ascent of the two-handed backhand is the second biggest game-changer in the history of tennis—nearly up there with the coming of Open tennis.

Prior to the ascent of Borg, Evert, and Jimmy Connors, the two-hander was mostly considered taboo. But once those three showed how lethal it could be, the revolution was underway. This was most notable when it came to countering net-rushers. To serve-and-volley versus a one-handed backhand was usually quite productive, the incoming volleyer almost always certain to elicit a fieldable return. The two-hander was drastically more effective, be it with powerful and versatile returns, pinpoint passing shots, and well-disguised lobs. The two-handed backhand has also proven much more adept at forcefully and repeatedly driving the backhand down the line with far greater pace and depth than the one-hander. In other words, it’s dramatically expanded the dimensions of the court—space, time, distance.

And there it was at Roland Garros in the spring of ’74: a pair of two-handed teens, primed to take over the world and, in large part, lay the groundwork for how tennis is played today.


Special Feature: The Ice Storm

Special Feature: The Ice Storm

100 years after tennis was invented on grass in England, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg reinvented it on clay in France.

What was it about Borg or Evert (or both) that made them so well suited for this moment, at such young ages?

Bodo: Although tennis had always generated a few crossover celebrities, from Suzanne Lenglen to Pancho Gonzalez, the elitist baggage the game carries historically kept public interest well below the boiling point. But when tennis went “Open” in 1968, the stage was set for increased popularity, spectacular growth, and a boom in media interest. The game was ripe for the emergence of “relatable” stars—especially cool kids like Chrissie and Bjorn.

Although Evert and Borg both had mad clay-court skills, they seemed tailor-made—in different ways—to lead the charge into the future. Borg was the first European superstar in a game dominated by the Anglo-world, as well as the first cradle-to-grave professional. Evert was very much the  “girl next door,” her competitive drive well-concealed beneath a wholesome, placid exterior that, after the upheavals of the 1960s, was appealing to the mainstream.

But never forget: neither player would have become a personage without backing up all the hype on the court.

Drucker:Borg and Evert hit the scene during the tennis boom years of the ‘70s. Tennis had gone Open in 1968 and the floodgates were now open for the sport to be heavily commercialized. This also coincided with broader cultural shifts in fashion, the popularity of sports, and increased media coverage. Amid this milieu, teen sensations Borg and Evert were each like young rock stars. Precocious and skilled, each was also shy and non-controversial. It added up to massive charisma, be it “Borg-mania” at his first Wimbledon in ’73 at the age of 17, or the 16-year-old Evert’s headline-making run to the semis of the ’71 US Open (her debut year there). Their first Grand Slam singles titles in Paris only further fueled their fame.


And there it was at Roland Garros in the spring of ’74: a pair of two-handed teens, primed to take over the world and, in large part, lay the groundwork for how tennis is played today.

From your interactions with them, what's a personal story you can share?

Bodo: The most tennis bizarre story I ever covered was Bjorn Borg’s 1991 comeback from a retirement of nearly a decade. Start with this: after using a large-headed graphite racquet in exhibition matches and wearing his hair short in the ’80s, Borg had allowed his hair to grow and chose to play with a throwback wooden racquet.

The ill-fated event unfolded in gloriously surreal fashion in Monte Carlo—playground of Russian oligarchs, unhappy heiresses, and thugs in tracksuits made of unborn zebra skin. For his comeback, Borg had enlisted, as coach, one Tia Honsai, a 79-year-old self-described master of martial arts and shiatsu massage. Honsai was assisted by two ballerinas (it gets better, but I have space constraints).

I had not seen Borg since he walked away from tennis after losing the 1981 US Open final to John McEnroe. On the morning of Borg’s first press conference, I got lost in the labyrinthian underground garage beneath the press conference venue. Suddenly I heard a din. Soon a gaggle of folks approached through the perpetual twilight. Flashbulbs popping. Reporters tripping over each other. At the head of the parade, the man of the hour: Borg.

I stepped to the side. I knew Bjorn about as well as any journalist not from Sweden, so it was hardly surprising that our eyes lit with recognition as he passed. Instead of some anodyne greeting, Bjorn laughed out loud. It was a nervous, barking guffaw without joy. I took it to be this very non-verbal guy’s way of asking, “What the hell are we doing here?”

Predictably, the comeback was an utter disaster.

Drucker:In September 1974, just after the US Open, Evert and Connors were still engaged and considering living in Los Angeles. That month, they looked at an apartment in the same building I lived in. I was 14 then and didn’t care for either of them. Connors struck me as obnoxious (though this changed two years later).

As for Evert, I found her emotionally remote and had little affinity for what made her a great tennis player. I was a lefthanded net-rusher, with little awareness of how to win points from the baseline. Only in the ‘80s, when I began to broaden my skills, did I come to appreciate the genius of Evert’s game. It’s gratifying that I’ve been able to discuss all of this with her several times.

Levey: “Hi, Jon. It’s Chrissie.”

For more than 20 years, working with Chris on her “Chrissie’s Page” column for Tennis Magazine, I hunted that greeting. It was my responsibility to pull her copy together each issue and it always started with a phone call. We often submitted past deadline, but proudly never missed an assignment.

The trickiest part of the process—other than tracking her down—was getting Chris to take a stand. It’s not that she didn’t have any opinions—far from it. She’s quick with a joke and has plenty of tales to dish. When Andre Agassi’s candid memoir (Open) came out, I asked Chris if she would ever consider doing likewise. She bristled at the thought of a tell-all. She felt the only way to do it justice would be to have a similar no-holds-barred approach. And that’s just not her style.

She was also keenly aware of the weight her name and words carried in the sport. She respects the locker room and appreciates there’s a fine line between champion and qualifier. Rather than court controversy, she opted for an upbeat tone. She always wanted to end each of her letters on a positive note.

Our final column together was on the dual retirements of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. A fitting bookend to our collaboration, since it essentially spanned their careers. I doubt there was two players Chris wrote about more. She adores Federer and—contrary to what many believe—admires what Serena brought to the game. Chris was in the midst of her ongoing battle with cancer, but you’d never know it. Always the poker face, just like her playing days. The only purpose she saw in making her fight public was to draw attention to the importance of early detection.

The phone calls have stopped. Now I chase texts seeking how she’s doing, which I don’t do often enough. A voice replaced by thumbs up and red wine glass emojis. It’s not the same, but I’ll take it.

Got to end on a positive.


Fifty years later, what aspects of the Borg and Evert legacies stand out to you?

Bodo: Chris Evert’s record and her poise elevated her to a role model, especially in the U.S. She demonstrated throughout her career, particularly in her epic rivalry with Martina Navratilova, that as desirable as natural strength and athleticism are, they aren’t absolute requirements for success at the highest level. Sure, talent matters, but it’s the intangibles that really count: pressure tolerance, precision, determination, discipline (personal as well as technical), focus.

Bjorn Borg led a great leap forward into the universal embrace of topspin by both men and women. He created heavy spin off both wings with a style that put great emphasis on wrist action—a feature that led many otherwise sage analysts to predict an early end to his career. Instead, he revolutionized the game.

In some ways it’s a shame that Borg skipped most schooling, never mind college. But as most of the rest of the world does not share the American love of collegiate sports, Borg created a valuable template for a vast number of players who dreamed of becoming professional athletes.

In a joint legacy, Borg and Evert set the bar for sportsmanship high at a time when legions of fans were voyeuristically flocking to tennis to witness and chortle over the antics of “bad boys” like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. In a new era for tennis, they helped preserve the original standards—like them or not—of acceptable behavior.

Drucker: Borg and Evert had incredible powers of concentration that remain in the .00001 percent of anyone who’s ever held a racquet. Go to YouTube and you’ll find many clips of these two in action. With their small-headed wood racquets, Borg and Evert stationed themselves just behind the baseline and repeatedly won one lengthy rally after another—10, 20 even 50 shots long. That each could maintain such a high level of discipline for so long was amazing.  No wonder it was common for each to emerge from a challenging first set and then run away with the second.

Levey: Borg was, and is, just so cool. There’s a mystique that surrounds him to this day that transcends accomplishments and enters myth. And it’s not just fans; even his fellow players shine his aura.

I’ve never confirmed this story, but I choose to believe it is true. It was told to me by a former Aussie pro who played some doubles tournaments with Borg during his early teenage years on tour. One of Borg’s calling cards was his supreme fitness. No matter the situation, he rarely looked fatigued or winded. It was rumored that his resting heart rate was an absurdly low number that rivaled a hibernating bear. A competitor once asked the Swede if there was any truth to this, or was it mere hyperbole.

Borg said: “You know when you play a long, back and forth point that leaves you bent over panting, and you can feel your heart beating in your chest?”

Player responded: “Of course.”

Borg: “Well, I don’t.”

What a legend.


Do you see any parallels to the most recent first-time Slam champions on each tour, Coco Gauff (20) and Jannik Sinner (22)?

Bodo: Jannik Sinner and Coco Gauff are unlikely to impact tennis the way Borg and Evert did, although they certainly have the talent to accumulate career statistics that ultimately bear comparison. The game has matured. It’s hard to imagine a comparable, evolutionary leap forward. Besides, at age 20, Gauff isn’t as complete as Evert was at a comparable age. Sinner, good as he is, basically plays textbook tennis. Exceptional talent? You bet. Game-changing? Unlikely.

Drucker: Indeed, there’s a nice connection between the breakthrough Slam wins of Gauff and Sinner. Like Evert and Borg, Gauff and Sinner are focused competitors who used fine movement and baseline accuracy to take command of the rallies. Of course, everything from changes in racquet and string technology, to new approaches to fitness, nutrition and technique have made tennis far more physical than it was in Evert and Borg’s time.

Then again, when looking back half a century, why shouldn’t that be the case? Heck, 50 years before Evert and Borg was the time of Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden. Still, with their two-handed backhands and forceful groundstrokes, Gauff and Sinner are building off the foundation first constructed by Evert and Borg. Let it be noted that following those initial triumphs at Roland Garros, Evert and Borg added more dimensions, Evert in time becoming a more frequent volleyer, Borg improving his serve. Over the next three to five years, what new skills and tactics will Gauff and Sinner bring to their matches?

Levey: Both being Southern Florida teenage prodigies from athletic families, there are notable similarities between Evert and Gauff. Their fathers were instrumental in their early development—Evert’s dad a renowned coach—before ceding that role to more experienced tour hands. And after distinguished junior careers both made immediate splashes on tour before taking a few years to win their first major.

Their two-handers are probably their best shots, but otherwise their playing styles are more distinctive. Evert was impossibly consistent, icy and methodical, while Gauff relies more on her aggression, athleticism and fist-pumping. Where their methods do align is they’re both gamers and relish a good fight.

But perhaps the most obvious parallel is this: At a very early age Evert became the face of American women’s tennis; now it’s Coco’s turn.