When the Björn Borg madness took over Wimbledon

Jun 29, 2016, 4:19:00 PM

When the Björn Borg madness took over Wimbledon
Among the most memorable editions of the Wimbledon tournaments, is the one played in 1973. The one which saw the rise of a 17 year-old blonde teenager who made London high school girls hysterical…

Among the most memorable editions of the Wimbledon tournaments, is the one played in 1973. Not only because of the absence of the best players due to a boycott, but because of the rise of a 17 year-old blonde teenager who made London high school girls hysterical…


It was 43 years ago. On June, 25th, 1973, the Wimbledon tournament starts in a climate of total confusion. On the previous days, almost all the best players of the men’s draw have decided to boycott the tournament. The reason behind this collective protest ? Nikola Pilic, the best Yugoslavian player at the time, finalist in Roland-Garros a few weeks earlier (lost against Nastase), learns that he is suspended by his federation for not having turned up to play a Davis Cup round against New-Zealand. A suspension confirmed by the international federation, which cuts down the sentence from nine to one month. Still too much for Pilic, banned from entering the Wimbledon tournament, and who receives the support of the young Association of Tennis Professionals, the ATP, who sees in the situation a good opportunity to affirm it’s legitimacy in front of the federation. In total, 81 players of the circuit, all members of the ATP, decide to skip the London tournament to show their solidarity with their punished colleague. The only Top 10 member to take part in the tournament is Ilie Nastase and it is mainly the Eastern-European players who decide to disregard the instructions given by the ATP. Among the players taking part in the tournament, is also a young teenager who will quickly become the center of the media and audience’s attention : a certain Björn Borg.


« Teen Angel » and « Poster boy »

At the time, Borg has just celebrated his 17th birthday, and is playing his first season on the professional circuit. Yet to be a member of the ATP, he seizes the opportunity of playing in a Wimbledon tournament deprived of the best players of the moment, including the title-holder Stan Smith, even having the luxury to be seeded at the 6th spot ! It must be said that the Swede had already been talked about a few weeks earlier, at Roland-Garros, where, for his first Grand Slam tournament, he managed to reach the fourth round, being knocked out, with honors, by Adriano Panatta in four hard-fought sets. On June 25th, when the tournament starts, the men’s draw counts a record-number of 29 qualified players and 49 lucky losers, all recalled to compensate, at the last minute, the numerous withdrawals. But in the London of this early summer 1973, as the radio blasts the most famous hits of the moment (Slade, 10cc, Fleetwood Mac, T.Rex or Bowie’s Life on Mars), the attention of the press and the crowd will turn towards a young Swede who seems to come out of a Bee Gees record cover : Björn Borg. The one who is quickly nicknamed « Teen Angel » by the english press, the first of many nicknames : The Viking God, The Angelic Assassin or Iceborg. He will also be the first « poster boy » in the history of tennis, a sport which, at the time, has only been professionalized for a few years and which is crawling out of its confidentiality to conquer the crowd’s heart.


A « slightly scary » Bjorgmania

Because, yes, the Swede literally puts the young crowd of high school girls who came to the alleys of the All England Tennis Club, searching for a new idol in a white polo shirt, in turmoil. They have their hearts set on this kid with blonde curls and a dazzling smile, who is going through rounds after rounds : a first win against Premjit Lall, then Patrick Hombergen, Karl Meiler and Szabolcz Baranyi. Put on the central court for the second round, Borg is battling to come out after his victory : a horde of young ladies are massing together towards him, preventing him from reaching the dressing room, some of them even tearing locks of his hair ! « It’s true that’s it is slightly scary, will go on to confess the player, interviewed much later in his career on this episode, for the book Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the untold story of tennis’s fiercest rivalry, written by Stephen Tignor. I was litterally thrown on the ground by these girls. But at the same time, it was kind of fun. »


«Some girls had found out where I was staying »

The ones who were then nicknamed the « tenny-boppers » propelled the young Swede to the status of  being the new star of tennis, while pushing this usually stiff and bourgeois sport in the pop culture. « A star is Bjorn » was already the headline of The Observer early june, when Borg had reached the fourth round at the French Internationals. One month later, the media even started speaking of a « Borgmania » in line with the « Beatlemania » of the previous decade, and even the « Borgasm » to qualify the hysteria surrounding this beardless Jesus, who multiplies the racquet strokes of genius. For his first Wimbledon, the adventure finally ended in the quarter finals, after a defeat against the local Roger Taylor, after a very hard-fought battle in five sets. Evacuated from the court with two security guards, the kid will spend an awful lot of time trying to reach his hotel room. « Some girls had found out where I was staying so when I arrived, there was about a hundred there, screaming and asking for an autograph. They wanted to talk to me, touch me, I was like a pop star. The world of tennis had never seen such thing, » he explained during an interview given to the Guardian in 2007. Winner of Roland-Garros the year after, he will have to wait until 1976 to conquer the first of his five consecutive titles at Wimbledon. Under the eyes of his enamored fans.



By Régis Delanoë