He was one of the best returners of his time and his serve-volley game saw him ranked as high as 4th in the world in 1997. A three-time winner of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, Jonas Björkman is part of the last golden generation of Swedish tennis, alongside the two Thomas’ - Enqvist and Johansson – and Magnus Norman. But what happened to the player who, well before Novak Djokovic arrived on the scene, was an outstanding impersonator of his colleagues?
While most athletes’ waistbands clearly start to expand after their career, Jonas Björkman has stayed in shape since the end of his own in 2008. So, when he arrives in the halls of Stockholm's Congress Centre, hosting a Senior Tour event for a second consecutive year, people recognize him immediately and the conversation is continually interrupted by well-wishers. Despite never winning a Grand Slam, unlike his prestigious elders Borg, Wilander and Edberg, the "other" attacker of Swedish tennis remains for his countrymen, the man who, on three occasions, played out the match point of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas title (1994, 1997, 1998). In the Open Era, only John McEnroe has such a record.
As for his physique, it's not a gift of nature: “I keep myself in shape,” he smiles. “I've started playing some doubles again with Todd Woodbridge (they won five Grand Slam titles together, editor's note), and I hope to make my debut on the Senior Tour soon. I'm more or less on waiting lists. Two or three times I was contacted to substitute for other players who’d dropped out, but it was too late for me to withdraw from my other obligations. But if I can get the opportunity, it would be great. I would love to play again with the players of my generation, Rafter, Fabrice (Santoro, Ed), Moya, Corretja…”
For the last three years, the former world number four, semi-finalist at the 1997 US Open and at Wimbledon in 2006, has been co-director of the Stockholm ATP250 tournament “with my best friend, Thomas Johansson.” The duo, often inseparable on the tour, also takes part in the organization of the other ATP tournament hosted in Sweden, in Båstad: “When Thomas and I retired, we were already thinking of how we could help our colleagues in Båstad to develop their event. And so, when the opportunity to manage the Stockholm tournament came along soon after, it was like a dream came true. As players, we have seen all the tournaments around the world, all the locker’s rooms, all the player’s lounges… We know the expectations of the players better than anyone. We know what they like, what they dislike. We also wanted to remain involved in tennis and to help Swedish tennis as much as we could, so we said yes.”
Their work proved to be effective, to the extent that the duo has even managed to attract Roger Federer to the event in 2010. Until then, the Swiss player had only been to Sweden once… back in 2000. “Thomas and I often go out on the tour to convince players to come and play in our tournament. The personal effort we take obviously helps us to attract them. We were on the tour not so long ago, we still know a few players and see some others who have become coaches...We may have more arguments to convince them than someone that hasn’t lived the life from the inside.”
”A bridge from Tennis to the real world”
If, like many others, he confesses to a certain nostalgia for the courts and the adrenaline buzz, working on the other side of the court remains for him "The best way to learn real life, how the world works when you don't spend your life hitting a yellow ball (smile), and become familiar with business: how does a tournament work? What brings it to life? How to keep the stall-holders in the village happy? It's an ideal bridge from tennis to the real world.”
Elsewhere, he regularly plunges back into the tennis world at the mic of a Swedish TV channel, TV4, for whom he acts as a consultant. He also keeps an eye on Swedish tennis and believes better days lie in store for his country: “We are currently experiencing a drought, but there are reasons to be optimistic for the future. We have some very good young players and amongst the former pros, many of us are trying to give back to Swedish tennis what it gave us. Today, the Magnus Norman Academy, for example, has a few youngsters for whom we have high hopes, such as Fred Simonsson and the Myer brothers, Elias and Mikael…” A garrulous character, the interview with Björkman lasted much longer than expected. A couple stops by to salute him. He introduces us: "My hero." Stefan Edberg.
Interview by Guillaume Willecoq