Borg's Comeback II turns serious now that he finds playing fun again


BRADENTON, Fla. -- Five years ago, one of the greatest tennis players of all time didn't want to have anything to do with the game.

He didn't want to play it. Didn't want to watch it on TV. Didn't even want to read about it.

In 1986, as far as Bjorn Borg was concerned, tennis was taboo.

The man who had won six French Open championships, five consecutive Wimbledon crowns and 65 career titles would just as soon spit on a tennis racket as hit with one.

But a few years ago, that began to change.

Borg was watching TV one day, flipping through the channels, when he came across a tennis match.

He left it there. He watched. And, for the first time in ages, he liked what he saw.

It wasn't long before Borg, who had retired in January 1983 at the age of 26, was on the court again.

"And suddenly," he said at a news conference Thursday at Bradenton's Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, "I got the feeling back that it was fun to play tennis again."

For Borg, 35, who has been training at Bollettieri's facility and living in Bradenton since early November, The Comeback had begun. Sort of.

The stoic Swede, who was as well known for his relentless determination as for his brilliant ground strokes, didn't put his heart into it.

And it showed. In April, Borg played his first pro tournament since retiring, an ATP event not far from his home in Monte Carlo.

He should've waited. In the first round, Jordi Arrese, a Spaniard ,, then ranked 52nd in the world, took Borg to school, 6-2, 6-3.

Bollettieri watched that match, but left long before it ended.

"It hurt me to see this," Bollettieri said.

Borg understood.

"I played terrible," he said. "But I didn't expect too much."

So Borg put his tournament plans aside for a while. But not for long.

Today, Borg is attacking the game with the same fervor he had in 1980, when he was ranked No. 1 in the world.

The Comeback, Round Two, has begun.

"I'm happy to be playing again," said Borg, who will play a $100,000 ATP Senior Tour event in California in February. "I couldn't dream two or three years ago that I would enjoy being on the court for five hours. But I do."

Borg's goal remains the same: He wants to be competitive in big-time tennis.

But he's taking a more deliberate, disciplined approach this time. The pounding he took in Monte Carlo was worthwhile in that he learned some critical lessons. Borg now knows that he can't:

* Enter big-time tournaments yet. That's why Borg is starting with February's senior event, for players age 35-over.

* Play with his old wooden rackets. Two games into his match with Arrese, Borg realized that. Wood just won't stand up against today's high-tech, high-powered designs. Borg now plays with an up-to-date model.

* Attack the game half-heartedly. Borg is the first to admit that he practiced very little for Monte Carlo. But no more. His routine now includes two hours of grueling drills in the mornings and three hours of match play in the afternoons.

"They're working me very, very hard," he said of Bollettieri's staff.

Borg, as handsome and fit as he was 10 years ago, says he's improving daily. He has practiced with several partners at NBTA, including 63rd-ranked Jimmy Arias, as well a handful of promising junior players.

Jose Lambert, an NBTA coach who has been working with Borg, says the teen stars are itching to get a shot at the former teen idol.

"Everybody wants a win over Bjorn Borg," Lambert said, "even if it's just in practice."

Lambert said Borg's game is coming along.

"He's getting better every day," Lambert said. "And he seems to be having a lot of fun.

"He's still super quick, and covers the court as well as anybody. And he has as well-rounded a game as there is. He's not just the baseliner we remember him as. He can serve and volley, too."

Bollettieri, who is not coaching Borg, likes what he sees.

"He's got the two things it takes -- the desire to win, and the feet," said Bollettieri, Andre Agassi's mentor and recently voted the world's greatest coach. "[Borg's] feet and the movement have not slowed down. And his attitude is very positive. He's doing it for Bjorn, and that's the key element."

But Bollettieri and Borg said that it would be unlikely for the Swede to return to his invincible 1980 form.

"Perhaps," said Bollettieri, "he cannot reach the level of play he had at the age of 24."

Added the realistic Borg, "I believe I am not going to reach the level I was at 24 years old."

Yesterday, Borg left for Monte Carlo, where he will spend the holidays. He will return to Bradenton in mid-January for a few more weeks of practice.

"The [Bollettieri] Academy speaks for itself," Borg said. "The people here are great. It's like being home."

Borg said he would play some exhibitions in February -- he doesn't yet know against whom, but a series of matches against his old nemesis, John McEnroe, is a good bet -- before heading to California for the seniors tournament.

After that, Borg has no specific plans.

"I just want to pace myself and pick the right tournaments," he said. "I have to get used to match play again. Eventually, I'd like to play a regular ATP tournament. But I don't have a time schedule, and that's what's good about it."

Borg figures, even at 35, that time is on his side. He points to 39-year-old Jimmy Connors, who thrilled America by making it to the U.S. Open semifinals in September, as an example.

"I think Jimmy inspired everybody," Borg said. "I know he inspired me a lot. If you're fit and still in shape, you can still play good tennis at that age."

If the aging Connors can do it with his 40th birthday fast closing in, the forever young Borg, who doesn't look a day older than 25,

figures he can certainly do it now.

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