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Alternate History

What if Bjorn Borg Didn’t Retire at 25

Bjorn Borg was before my time, but my father would often talk about him retiring young. He’s one of the most fascinating sports figures ever in my opinion to walk away at his peak. The only athlete that seems remotely comparable is Michael Jordan, walking away in 1993, but for more understandable reasons. Like Jordan Bjorn Borg would make a comeback years later, unfortunately, he was never relevant in the comeback. Probably the most notable aspect of his return was that he attempted to play with a wood racket and grew his hair out like it was 1980. Unlike Jordan, Borg was out of the game for essentially 9 years when he tried to come back at 35 years old and was far from what he was when he left.

The game and specifically the equipment had changed more drastically than almost any other sport had or could in a decade. Perhaps only golf’s transition from persimmon woods to modern drivers in the 1990’s being comparable. I think it will be an interesting thought exercise to reflect on Borg’s career. We will speculate how Borg might have navigated the equipment change and performed and try to fill in those missing years he was away from the game. We will do this based on how his contemporary’s played as well as try to draw any information from his return.

Dominance

As you can see in the 16 majors he played preceding his retirement he went to the Finals in 14 and winnings 9 of them. He made it to the finals in the previous 6 grand slams he played as well. From what I can gather from documentaries and other articles, he felt trapped in his hotel room during tournaments. He was such a recognizable figure he couldn’t really walk the streets without getting mobbed. He also put so much pressure on himself that he would make himself physically ill before matches. It’s understandable why he burnt out so early when you read the backstory. Also, He had intense hours-long practices and daily routines that also contributed to a quick flame-out with lack of flexibility in his life. He had a coach that had a schedule for everything he did.

Let’s assume he could have spoken with a therapist and better learned how to deal with the stress of it all. Let’s also assume he learns how to continue on with tennis in a more enjoyable slightly less demanding way. Even if that were possible John McEnroe was younger and had just handed him 3 straight losses, including in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open in 1981. He had also beaten him in the finals of the US Open the season before as well. Borg’s tennis life was already getting more complicated and was about to get even more complicated with McEnroe’s arrival and the father of modern tennis Ivan Lendl there as well and on his way up too. Borg was unlikely to run roughshod over tennis like he had to steamrolling Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, and the previous generation. Tennis was also in the process of changing with new equipment, transition which happened mostly in 83-84. These are all likely factors he could see coming by 1982.

If you are interested this is a good video where he demo’s Borg’s signature wood Racket vs what Connors was using, and then the rackets that came along and replaced them in the mid 80’s. You get to hear and see the difference and he describes it in detail.

1981
1John McEnroe
2Jimmy Connors
3Ivan Lendl
4Bjorn Borg
5Jose Luis Clerc
6Guillermo Vilas

This is where things stood at the end of 1981. Even dropping to 4th was likely from his notoriously light schedule. He only played 41 matches that season, about half of the other top players. McEnroe had the best year, but Borg was still likely still the 2nd best player in the world and won the French Open that season.

Age in 1981
Jimmy Connors29
Bjorn Borg25
John McEnroe22
Ivan Lendl21

I think to speculate on how Borg may have competed throughout the 1980’s had he not retired, the best way is to take a look at how his contemporaries would fair. He was every bit as good or better than each of them when he walked. Even Jimmy Connors who was significantly older was still a world-class player until 1989, but he was more of a power baseline modern player. It’s conceivable that if Borg went through the racket change at the same time as all of these peers and stayed committed to tennis he’s likely in the top 15 as well throughout the 1980s just as they all were.

Here are the end-of-season rankings for the rest of the 1980s

1982
1John McEnroe
2Jimmy Connors
3Ivan Lendl
4Guillermo Vilas
5Vitas Gerulaitis
6Jose Luis Clerc
1983
1John McEnroe
2Ivan Lendl
3Jimmy Connors
4Mats Wilander
5Yannick Noah
1984
1John McEnroe
2Jimmy Connors
3Ivan Lendl
4Mats Wilander
5Andres Gomez
1985
1Ivan Lendl
2John McEnroe
3Mats Wilander
4Jimmy Connors
5Stefan Edberg
6Boris Becker
1986
1Ivan Lendl
2Boris Becker
3Mats Wilander
4Yannick Noah
5Stefan Edberg
8Jimmy Connors
14John McEnroe
1987
1Ivan Lendl
2Stefan Edberg
3Mats Wilander
4Jimmy Connors
5Boris Becker
10John McEnroe
1988
1Mats Wilander
2Ivan Lendl
3Andre Agassi
4Boris Becker
5Stefan Edberg
7Jimmy Connors
11John McEnroe
1989
1Ivan Lendl
2Boris Becker
3Stefan Edberg
4John McEnroe
5Michael Chang
14Jimmy Connors
1990
1Stefan Edberg
2Boris Becker
3Ivan Lendl
4Andre Agassi
5Pete Sampras
13John McEnroe

Even as late as 1989 Ivan Lendl was 1st, John McEnroe was 4th, and Jimmy Connors was 14th. I believe Borg could have at least been in the top 14 with them at the age of 33 if he were fully committed. Connors was 37 years old that season, and would still be in the top 50 two seasons later when he made his US Open Run at 39.

The Comeback

Borg’s comeback was a bit of a farce. He grew his hair out like it was 1976, and was playing with a wood racket at the start even though he had played with a graphite racket in exhibitions and had short hair through the late 80s. You have to question how seriously he even took it. He said at the time he didn’t train. I recall McEnroe saying he asked him what he was doing. He said he told him to switch rackets to have any chance. Eventually, Borg would in 1992 and would move to Florida to train.

While Borg would lose all 12 matches in his comeback from 1991-1993, most of the players he played were top 100 players. I don’t think you can really expect to comeback to tennis after nearly a decade of not playing and jump directly into the level of tournaments he did playing top 50 players and expect to have success. He didn’t play enough, or start at a level he could work himself into form for it to be successful. I think the years away were too much to overcome as well. Tennis was a different game when he came back and one he didn’t have the benefit of adjusting to like the players from his time did over the course of years.

1993

Even in this context, there is some information that can be gleaned. The last year Borg played was 1993, and he was playing with a modern racket by that point, taking the training more seriously and he was more competitive. He played 3 matches in 1993 all went 3 sets that year. The first was vs the 46th best player in the world, the 2nd vs the 113th player, and the last match he ever played was vs 17th ranked Alexander Volkov. He’d lose that one in the 3rd seat in a tiebreaker where he had a match point. I think that is an impressive showing for a 37 year old given the circumstances. To me that is a good indication he still had some tools to play a top 20 player in the world like that even at an advanced age.

Here is a video of Borg in 1992 vs 22nd ranked Wayne Ferreria. He lost in two sets but did push the first set to a tiebreaker. I was most impressed with how well he was moving and his quickness even at 36 years old.

The Missing Years

These are the champions in those years

AustralianFrenchWimbledonUS Open
1982Johan Kriek Mats WilanderJimmy Connors Jimmy Connors
1983Mats Wilander Yannick Noah John McEnroe Jimmy Connors
1984Mats Wilander Ivan Lendl John McEnroe John McEnroe
1985Stefan Edberg Mats Wilander Boris Becker Ivan Lendl
1986Ivan Lendl Boris BeckerIvan Lendl
1987Stefan Edberg Ivan Lendl Pat Cash Ivan Lendl
1988Mats Wilander Mats Wilander Stefan Edberg Mats Wilander
1989Ivan Lendl Michael Chang Boris Becker Boris Becker
1990Ivan Lendl Andrés Gómez Stefan Edberg Pete Sampras

I think Borg would have been in play for multiple more grand slams from 1982-1984. As well as he played the French I think he wins it in 1982 and 1983 over Wilander and Noah. I think he also wins the US Open over Connors at least once if not twice. Also Wimbeldon as well over Connors. He was the better player IMO. I’ll go with 2 French, 1 US Open, 1 Wimbledon, and I think he still had one more surprise, likely at Wimbledon in the latter half of the 1980s in 1985-1987. So I project he wins 5 more slams if he stays motivated and playing as long as Connors and McEnroe did. He finishes with 16 overall which when you consider he didn’t play the Australian but once is a pretty good percentage. Overall I think he trends more like McEnroe career after a switch to graphite and gives way more to the power of the era and new modern game of Ivan Lendl and the next generation. He’s still in the mix, but his dominance isn’t as likely after 1982 even if he gets another couple of slams at Wimbledon or the French.

Connors was a consistent Semi-Finalist many of these years.

Alternate History

198219831984198519861987198819891990
AustralianAAAAAAAAA
FrenchWWSFSFSFQF4R4R3R
WimbledonWFFWSFSFQFQF4R
US OpenFWFSFQFQF4R3R2R
Rank(EOY)12234671450

This is my speculation given the regression of McEnroe and Connors, and the trajectory Borg was on. I believe had he been motivated and played a similar schedule to those two the rest of the 80’s look something like this. I think he wins 4 or 5 more majors and is a top 10 player until 1988. That’s my speculation.

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