Saturday School: Swedish tennis – once glorious, now adrift

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EARLY DAYS

It was Carl Gunnar Setterwall who put Swedish tennis on board by winning the bronze medal in the doubles category at the Olympic games in 1908. Four years later, yet again he won three more medals at the Olympics but none of them came in the singles category and none of them shone gold.

After over four decades, another Swedish player named Lennart Bergelin rose to the big stage and helped Swedish tennis take a step further at the global stage. He became the first Swedish player to win a grand slam by capturing the doubles title at the French Open men’s doubles along with the then Czech player, Jaroslav Drobny. Bergelin represented Sweden in 89 Davis Cup matches, winning 63 of them. In the singles category, apart from the US Open, Bergelin reached the quarter-finals of each slam reaching a career high of World No.9.

 

ONE STEP AT A TIME

When Bergelin was nearing the tail of his tennis career in the late 1950s, Sweden found its rightful successor at just the right moment. Sven Davidson reached the finals in the men’s singles of the French Open in 1955 & 1956. However, Davidson lost in both the finals and it seemed as if Sweden would have to wait longer than expected to see its first singles grand slam champion. But Davidson had a different plan. Steadfast to his goal, Davidson reached the finals of the French Open for the third consecutive year. This time he defeated eighth seed Herbert Flam in straight sets and became the first Swede to win a grand slam. The same year, Davidson made it to the semis of Wimbledon and US Open. In 1958, he won the men’s doubles title at Wimbledon partnering compatriot, Ulf Schmidt.

After reaching 50 career titles and reaching a career high ranking of World No.3, Davidson retired in 1960. In the 60s, Jan Erik Lundquist became the flag bearer of Swedish tennis. Despite reaching a global ranking of World No.3, he never won a grand slam title but was highly successful in the Davis Cup events. The Swede was a prolific player on clay courts, reaching the semi-finals at the French Open in singles. On both occasions, he lost to Nicola Pietrangeli. Lundqvist won 35 career titles of the 46 finals he reached in his career.

 

BLOOM WITH A BOOM: BORG, WILANDER & EDBERG

Though Bergelin hung up his shoes in the late late 50s, he remained associated with tennis as a coach. He was caught and gripped by a teenager’s playing style whom he eventually decided to coach. This young man was Bjorn Borg. After Lundquist retired Swedish tennis was yet to find its successor. In 1972, Borg was down 2-5 in the Wimbledon juniors’ final but came back to win the title.  In 1974, Borg was seeded third at the Roland Garros and after a fortnight, became the then youngest champion of the Roland Garros at the age of 18. Borg would go on to win six French Open titles and five consecutive Wimbledon titles. He is still the only player to win the channel slam on three consecutive occasions. He was one of the pioneers to use the heavy topspin forehand regularly in the rallies. He became the first Swedish player to reach the World No.1 ranking and till date has the highest winning percentage at Wimbledon and overall at Grand Slams. He is also one of the four players to win a slam thrice without dropping a set. Famously known as, Ice-Borg or Iceman due to his relatively calm demeanor in the matches, the Swede held the World No.1 ranking for 109 weeks.

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“We’re playing tennis, he’s (Borg) playing something else.”

– Ilie Nastase

Borg’s dominance was challenged by players like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Ilies Nastase, Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe. Borg retired at the tender age of 26 due to immense pressure and attention that he received leading to an eventual burnout. Borg’s run in tennis ended in 1984 but his success in tennis at the global level caused many young players to take up tennis as their first sport. Due to Borg’s inspirational tennis, Swedish tennis continued to bloom as Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg became the next two players to dominate the tennis world.

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After Borg retired, Wilander became the fastest player to win four grand slams aged 20. The year Borg retired, Edberg became the first and only juniors players to claim all the four junior Grand Slam titles. Starting from the 1982 French Open up until the 1992 US Open, Edberg and Wilander won 13-grand slams combined. In 1988, all the majors were won by Sweden – 3 by Wilander and 1 by Edberg. The duo were a part of the winning Davis Cup team in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Edberg was also a part of the victorious Swedish Davis Cup team of 1994.

 

GEARING DOWN

 

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Both Edberg and Wilander retired in 1996. Thomas Enqvist seemed to follow the footsteps of Borg, Wilander and Edberg. He won 19 of the 26 singles finals he reached in his career. Enqvist was one of the Top 5 players of the 90s but did not win a grand slam title. He reached the finals of the Australian Open in 1999 but lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov who became the first Russian to win a major. Magnus Norman and Thomas Johansson joined Enqvist in revitalizing Swedish tennis. Norman finished as the runner-up at the Roland Garros in 2000 and reached a career high of World No.2. However, it was Johansson who ended the long wait for a Swedish man to win a major as he captured the 2002 Australian Open after defeating Marat Safin is straight sets.

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A LOST LEGACY

Swedish tennis went underground ever since Johansson’s Australian Open triumph. The closest a player reached to win a slam was Robin Soderling in 2009. Soderling was the last standing hope for Swedish tennis but he suffered from mononucleosis and was forced to retire at the age of 26. Even in the doubles category, after Anders Jarryd and Jonas Bjorkman no Swedish man excelled as much as these two recipients of the doubles career grand slam.

 

 

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“I loved to watch all the Swedish players. I was very patriotic when I was a kid, and it was great, because every tournament there was at least one Swedish player doing good, and there was one Swedish player you could follow. That’s mostly why I started to play tennis.”  

– Robin Soderling

 

Swedish men won 24 grand slam titles from 1974 to 1992. The current tally shows only a marked progression and is stuck at 25.

“For me it’s a different vibe on the tour, because there’s no Swedish players around like there used to be. They were my best friends on the tour, and it’s just a different feeling. They used to have a Swedish corner in the locker rooms, and it’s not like that anymore.”

– Jarkko Nieminen

 

From 1975 to 1988 Sweden captured 7 Davis Cup titles and finished as the runner-up on 5 occasions. Sweden also has won 56 matches in Davis Cup which is the third-most in the World Group. Once a No.1 side, Sweden is no longer in the Top 20 rankings of the Davis Cup.

“A setback was always going to happen but to this extent is probably a big surprise even to myself.”

– Stefan Edberg

 

Bjorn Borg’s 14-year old son, Leo Borg has took up the tennis racquet and is hoping to follow his father’s footsteps. Mats Wilander wishes that it would be great for tennis if young Borg can replicate his father’s success.

“Everyone was spoiled with the huge success. Back in 1988, Wilander won three Slams and Edberg the other one. What’s going to happen after that? You can’t do better.”

–  Mikael Tillstrom

 

FROM PLAYERS TO LEGENDS TO SUPER COACHES

“I think the Swedish impact in tennis is bigger outside the court than on the court for the moment,”                

– Thomas Johansson

Swedish tennis stars of the past have ventured into the field of off-court tennis by working and guiding the careers of many grand slam winners. Magnus Norman was coach to Gael Monfils and Robin Soderling and is currently working with Stan Wawrinka. Stefan Edberg coached Roger Federer for a year. Jonas Bjorkman was the coach of Andy Murray and Marin Cilic in the past. Another Swedish tennis player whose results were better off the court is Thomas Hogstedt. Hogstedt has coached Eugenie Bouchard, Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys. Another name that adds to this list is of Peter Lundgren. A former Top 30 player, Lundgren coached Stan Wawrinka, Marcelo Rios, Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis, Grigor Dimitrov and Daniela Hantuchova.  

Leading the pack of the younger generation of Swedish tennis players are the Ymer brothers. Currently ranked 105 in the world, Ymer Elias has won 4 challenger titles. Elias’ younger brother Ymer Mikael is ranked No.364 in the world. The brothers won the doubles title at Stockholm in 2016. Elias Ymer is currently coached by Robin Soderling.

 

“It was more obvious when Robin got sick. If you were really inside tennis, everyone knew that it was only Robin and then nothing — at the time. But when he got sick, I think media, everyone else, realized, ‘Ooh, wow, is it really that bad?’ ”

– Jonas Bjorkman


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