Bjorn Borg does not miss any opportunity to remind his friend Vijay Amritraj of all the times he has gotten the better of the Indian in their clashes on the tennis courts, all those years ago.
Even when Amritraj is talking about how the Indian Davis Cup team broke down diplomatic barriers to play Israel in the semi-finals of the 1987 edition, Borg is quick to ask Amritraj if he remembers who India lost to in the final. After a frustrated sigh comes the answer, Sweden. That’s all Borg wanted to hear.
In a sport as lonely as tennis where players are constantly living out of the suitcase and waging battles on the court all by themselves, it isn’t a surprise to see players strike meaningful friendships with each other. For Borg and Amritraj, the friendship was forged in an era devoid of the mobile phone and social media.
“First time I met him was at Wimbledon in 1973, 50 years ago,” Borg said at an interaction at The Leela Palace hotel in Bengaluru on Tuesday.
“None of these folks were even born back then,” quipped Amritraj, now 69.
Borg, the legendary Swede who won 11 Grand Slam singles titles (six at the French Open and five at Wimbledon), is in India accompaning his son Leo, who was competing at the ATP Challengers in Chennai and Bengaluru. But coming to the subcontinent was also a chance for the 66-year-old to catch up with his old rival and friend.
He took the liberty of recalling their first meeting.
“That was the first contact we had. It was a long time ago. We always had a good relationship. Friends. Respected each other,” Borg said. “On the tennis court and off the tennis court. To meet this guy 50 years ago at Wimbledon, it was fantastic because what he did for India, coming up from India, what he did for the country, for tennis, not only in India but all over the world, he was very respected, all over the world. Not only for the tennis players like me and other players. No one really wanted to play him because it was tough times to play this guy because he was very, very good.”
“I think for us, personal meetings are key. We generally catch up at Wimbledon lot in the summer time usually,” Amritraj said.
“Our friendship goes back a long way, but it’s still schedule permitting. Everything is schedule permitting. So when we discussed this at Wimbledon for him and Patricia to come, we tried to pick the right time to come. January-February is a good time to come to India. His son (Leo) was playing and so we thought ‘fantastic!’ Bjorn was considering making the trip, so I kind of just edged him a little more to make the visit.”
While it is one thing to be friends while on tour, it is another to maintain that friendship for decades while being on different continents.
“The feeling between us, we understand the game. We understand life. Understand friendship, people around us. What we did for so many years and that’s why it’s so, so nice to see Vijay,” Borg said. “Because if I say a small thing, he’ll understand it immediately. It’s the same with him. And that’s to understand that feeling, friendship, life, it’s something special and that’s what we lived for and we are still living for that.”
Amritraj added, “It’s a question of how you’re able to relate to it. It’s just an environment that we’ve been in for a long period of time and we are the only ones to know what it is to a certain extent and what difficulties we have faced and what it is every time we get into the situation. So when he brings something up, boom, we know right away. So we have these great memories of matches we played, won and lost both.”
The pair met twice in Grand Slams with Amritraj winning their first encounter in the second round of the 1974 US Open with the Swede winning their next match-up in the second round at Wimbledon in 1979. But it was Borg’s rivalry with the American John McEnroe that dominated the headlines towards the end of the 1970s. While the pair did not display any animosity towards each other, the rivalry between the cool and calm Borg versus the hot-headed and temperamental McEnroe was a delight for fans.
Which is why when Borg retired suddenly in 1983 at the age of 26 to have a normal life, McEnroe attempted to persuade the Swede to get back in the game. Not only because he was still one of the best players on the Tour, but also because their careers and stories had been intertwined with each other.
“When I stepped away from the game, I was very young. We played an exhibition in Tokyo, in Japan. He came to me and said, ‘You cannot stop playing tennis.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘No. Because I need you there!’ ‘But I don’t wanna play!’” Borg recalled the interaction.
“But he was always pushing me because I think, as long as I was there, he was pushing (himself). He liked it, he enjoyed it very much and that was very important for him. And he was very sad, disappointed. And he called me year later and said, ‘You sure you not going to come back to tennis again?’ ‘I’m sure. John. Listen, you do your things. I do my things.’ I mean the rivalry with that kind of thing was a great thing,” he said.
While Leo Borg’s tournaments at the Chennai Challenger and Bengaluru Challenger did not go according to plan as the 19-year-old lost in the first round at both events, his South Indian sojourn did allow two old friends to meet up once again.