The Greatest Swede
If you take this generation’s best player out of the mix, it would be one of the weakest. In fact, we could say that more than any other generation with a premier talent in it, this generation is the weakest with only five Slams to players other than Bjorn Borg. But of course the generation does include Borg, who is still considered one of the best players in tennis history, and is a candidate for the best young player in the history of the game, with 11 Slams before his 25th birthday. Borg was also the first and greatest of three great Swedish players, followed by Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg in the golden era of Swedish tennis that was the late 70s into the early 90s.
Best Players by Birth Year
1954: Vitas Gerulaitis (USA, 1), Brian Teacher (USA, 1), Mark Edmondson (AUS, 1), John Lloyd (UK)
1955: Victor Pecci (PAR), Peter McNamara (AUS)
1956: Bjorn Borg (SWE, 11), Gene Mayer (USA), John Sadri (USA), Steve Denton (USA)
1957: Chris Lewis (NZ)
1958: Johan Kriek (SFA, 2), Jose Luis Clerc (ARG), Kevin Curren (SAF)
As you can see, there are no true standouts after Borg. In some ways this era echoes Ashe’s, although Borg was a much greater player than Ashe, and there is a bit more talent beyond its premier player; but it is a similar one-man show. The only other multi-Slam winner, Johan Kriek, won this two Slams at the Australian Open, a few years before it became as competitive as the other Slams.
As for Borg, what to say? He was an amazing talent, the premier player in the game during the late 70s, and was the overall best player during that decade, winning almost twice as many Slams (8) than runners-up John Newcombe and Jimmy Connors (5 each). He reached a high level at a very young age in an era when tennis was still dominated by men in their late 20s. Consider that when Borg finished 1974 as the No. 3 player in the world, at the tender age of 18, the only other members of the Top 10 who were younger than 27 were Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas, both 22. With those two Borg took the tennis world by storm in the mid-70s and changed the game.
Borg was a superstar in the full sense of the word. With his long-haired good looks and cool demeanor he was a welcome counterpoint to the fiery brashness of the other great star during the mid-70s, Jimmy Connors. Though Borg didn’t finish as the No. 1 player until 1979, it is clear that he had surpassed Connors at least a year prior and was deserving of the No. 1 ranking in 1978. But his reign at the very top was short-lived compared to his talent; an even brasher young American by the name of John McEnroe appeared on the tour in the late 70s giving Borg troubles, in what is undoubtedly the most storied and competitive rivalry in tennis history. By 1981 McEnroe had supplanted Borg as the premier player; it was Borg’s last year to play a Slam, after losing the Wimbledon and US Open finals to McEnroe. A contemporary comparison would have been if Rafael Nadal had retired after Novak Djokovic stole the No. 1 ranking from him in 2011; Nadal was the same age as Borg, 25. Borg didn’t play another Slam although didn’t announce his retirement until a year later, in January of 1983. He retired from the game for a variety of reasons, most especially being tired of various squabbles with the tour organizers, and losing the drive required to compete at the highest level. Regardless, he retired too soon for tennis fans and tennis history.
As an aside, there is an interesting harmonic between this era and more recent years. Just as Connors dominated the mid-70s with the rising young baseliner Borg in his rearview mirror, so too did Roger Federer dominate the mid-00s with a rising young Rafael Nadal behind him. Borg finally overtook Connors in 1979, just as Nadal overtook Federer in 2008. But just as Borg only held the No. 1 ranking for a couple years before being surpassed by McEnroe, Rafa’s reign was marred by injury and then the rise of Novak Djokovic in 2011. (Even the fourth wheel, Ivan Lendl, later became the coach to the fourth of the Big Four, Andy Murray). Borg’s retirement after 1981 would have been echoed in recent years if Rafa had retired after 2011, but as you know Rafa rose again.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
Vitas Gerulaitis was a notorious partier, called the “ultimate tennis playboy.” He was a very talented player, and for about six years—1977-1982—was a Top 10 player, and probably overall the sixth best player in the sport during that span after Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, and Vilas. His most comparable recent player is probably David Nalbandian, if the latter had won a Slam. Both players could have been more than they were in terms of their raw ability, but didn’t have the focus and mentality required to be true greats.
If you look at it in a certain way, Borg could also be considered an underachiever. As said before, he won 11 Slams before his 25th birthday – that’s more than Nadal (10), Federer (8), and Sampras (7). One of the biggest “What If?” questions in tennis history is “What if Borg hadn’t retired at such a young age?” The question is unanswerable, especially considering the fact that when he retired he had just been surpassed by John McEnroe as the best player in the game, and was seemingly losing interest in the relentless grind of the tour and tennis politics. But if Borg had somehow managed to rediscover his passion for the game, it seems a certainty that he would have finished his career with 15+ Slams and be mentioned in the same breath as Laver and Federer. But, in the end, his career is what it was.
Did You Know?
Bjorn Borg made several failed comeback attempts in 1991, ’92, and ’93. He did not win a match out of twelve played, and only won a set in each of the three matches played in 1993.
Top Ten Players of the Generation
- Bjorn Borg
- Vitas Gerulaitis
- Johan Kriek
- Jose Luis Clerc
- Mark Edmondson
- Brian Teacher
- Kevin Curren
- Gene Mayer
- Victor Pecci
- Peter McNamara
Honorable Mentions: John Lloyd, John Sadri, Chris Lewis, Steve Denton.
Yet another generation with a clear No. 1 (this will change shortly). Kriek is an interesting player to rank. On one hand it is hard to argue with two Slams. On the other, those two Slams were the 1981 and 1982 Australian Opens against Steve Denton, who never won a title. Despite winning half as many Slams, Gerulaitis was a far more prolific and successful player. For instance, Kriek never ranked higher than No. 7, and never finished in the year-end Top 10, while Gerulaitis ranked as high as No. 3, and finished six straight years in the Top 10. Gerulaitis was clearly the better player.
After that it falls sharply. Teacher and Edmondson both won Slams, but we run into the same problem: taking complete careers into account, Cleric was probably better than Edmondson, and Curren better than Teacher. But Nos. 4-8 are very close and somewhat interchangeable.
Pecci is best known for being by far the best Paraguayan player ever, but also for defeating Guillermo Vilas and Jimmy Connors en route to losing to Bjorn Borg in the 1979 French Open.