Entering the Monte Carlo Country Club on this day in 1991, 34-year-old Bjorn Borg had not played an ATP Tour match in nearly seven years.

Borg’s last two decades had been polar opposites. The ‘70s was all about ascent, the tale of a quiet boy from Sweden who had won major titles in his teens and reached the pinnacle by his early 20s.

The ‘80s: what goes up, must come down. At 25, Borg played what proved his last Grand Slam tournament, losing the 1981 US Open final to John McEnroe. Despite saying through ’82 that he intended a return, in January ’83, Borg announced his retirement—the Swede’s career sputtering to its end with a few perfunctory efforts that year and the next.

Borg had been a tennis rock star, “Borgmania” the term used to describe his instant popularity at Wimbledon. But if those early years evoked all the frenzy of the happy-go-lucky Beatles in their debut film, Hard Day’s Night, life after tennis was more akin to the bitter edge of the Fab Four’s White Album.

Throughout the ‘80s, he suffered business disasters, divorce and a potentially fatal dose of sleeping pills that he attributed to food poisoning. Similar to another Swedish icon, actress Greta Garbo, Borg has always favored silence over confession. We’ll likely never learn too much about his days and nights during that period.

So as he arrived at Monte Carlo, he was tennis’ Rip Van Winkle—his sleepy, subdued tranquility amplified even more by both his longstanding absence and current presence.  His slim, swimmer-like body remained intact, curiously accompanied not by a contemporary racquet, but by the antiquated Donnay frame he had used during his glory years.


TBT, 1991 Monte Carlo: Bjorn again? Borg's first match in seven years

TBT, 1991 Monte Carlo: Bjorn again? Borg's first match in seven years

AP Photo

While body and racquet were present, missing was Borg’s former coach, stern Swede Lennert Bergelin. According to a Sports Illustrated cover story written about Borg’s return, the two hadn’t spoken in four years. Borg’s current corner man was Tia Honsai, a 79-year-old Welshman previously named Ron Thatcher. A self-proclaimed expert in the martial arts, Honsai admitted to knowing nothing about tennis—but was certain the Swede could again reach the top. Dubbed “The Professor” by Borg, Honsai told an inquiring journalist in the Sports Illustrated piece, “I have treated the most famous and most toughest and greatest people in all the world. Who? I can’t tell you.”

There came at last the tennis. Borg’s opponent was Jordi Arrese, a 26-year-old Spaniard ranked 52nd in the world. As often happens with these comebacks, there was first the dream—the idea that Borg could return from exile and, at least to some degree, remind fans of past days in hopes of once again finding the spark. Then, there was the reality, of tennis’ existence as nonstop competition and continual upgrades in fitness, movement, and, most of all, ball-striking.

Though Borg’s court coverage remained plausible, the pace and weight of his shots were painfully dated, Arrese repeatedly grinding the great Swede into errors—31 to just eight winners. In one hour and 18 minutes, Arrese won 6-2, 6-3.

“The type of game I have was the worst thing that could happen to Borg,” said Arrese. “You could see he was moving his feet trying to slow the game down. It was too fast for him. It would have been better for him to play against someone who makes more mistakes.”

“My expectations were not that high,” said Borg. “After eight years, it’s impossible to play great tennis in your first match. I learned a lot from this match. Even if I lost, I enjoyed just playing a match. I enjoyed competing again . . . I’m sure if I play more matches I’m going to improve my game. I’m pretty confident about that.”

Borg added that he intended to enter the Italian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But he didn’t; not that year, nor ever again. The match in Monte Carlo was the only one he’d play in 1991. There followed eight the next year and three in ’93—Borg losing all eleven before at last calling tennis curtains once and for all.

TBT, 1991 Monte Carlo: Bjorn again? Borg's first match in seven years

TBT, 1991 Monte Carlo: Bjorn again? Borg's first match in seven years