Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1973–1983
Major titles: 11*
What does a tennis player look like? In many people’s minds, the description hasn’t changed in 40 years: The male version has long hair, wears a headband and tight white shorts, and swings a wooden racquet. This image survives in the popular imagination, despite all evidence to the contrary, because of one man: Bjorn Borg. The Swede’s hold over the game was so powerful that when he left the tour abruptly at age 25 in 1981, tennis seemed to stop with him.
Borg was the Open era’s first superstar and sex symbol, and its most popular player. His debut run, at 17, to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1973 was tennis’ version of the Beatles’ arrival in America. Schoolgirls screamed through the Teen Angel’s matches, and chased him across the grounds. That same year he signed with IMG and left home for tax haven Monte Carlo.
But Borg matched his pop-star style with a champion’s substance. His speed, stamina, steadiness and athleticism were unparalleled, and his heavy-topspin Western forehand and two-handed backhand—both were especially lethal on passing shots—became the models for virtually all players to come. Borg’s outward silence masked a cold-blooded instinct for the kill; from 1976 to 1980, he would win 13 straight five-set matches.
The Ice Man, he was dubbed; at the peak of his powers, in 1980, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline, “The Incredible Tennis Machine.” This machine, which was plastered with endorsements, was particularly good at making money. Playing a never-ending slate of exhibitions, Borg became one of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
By the late ‘70s, the Teen Angel went by a new nickname: the Angelic Assassin. He won the first of his six French Opens in 1974, led Sweden to its first Davis Cup title in 1975 and began a five-year reign at Wimbledon in 1976. From 1978 to ’80, Borg won the French and Wimbledon back-to-back three straight times (it would be 18 years before any man won the “Channel Slam” again). Borg still owns the highest winning percentage in Wimbledon history (92.7), Grand Slam history (89.8) and against Top 10 opponents (70.0). He spent 109 weeks at No. 1.
But keeping everything inside and turning himself into a machine came with a price. When Borg was knocked from the top spot at the 1981 US Open by John McEnroe, the spell was broken: he knew, and we knew, that the Ice Man was human, after all. The greatest of all players at the Grand Slams would never enter another.
Borg’s career lasted just eight full seasons, but tennis still isn’t over it.
Defining Moment: When Borg squandered six match points against McEnroe in their legendary 18-16 fourth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon in 1980, even the Angelic Assassin had his doubts that he could come back to win the fifth. But he put it out of his mind and rode his serve to an 8-6 victory. The Open era’s first Golden Age reached its peak as Borg fell to his knees after his final passing shot dipped inside the sideline for a winner.
Watch: Bjorn Borg beats John McEnroe in 1980 Wimbledon final