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"I felt like I was twenty years old again. Certainly I would have preferred to have won in '89, but I went back to that time and it was fantastic. I played like then. Only this way I could beat someone like Chang on clay..." - Stefan Edberg on his revenge against Michael Chang at the 1996 French Open. Read the article

Post-Borg era, Swedish tennis influence is off the court

from USA Today
by Douglas Robson

Stefan Edberg, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander before an exhibition in Stockholm in 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- No player left a bigger impression on Wimbledon in the emerging Open era than Sweden's Bjorn Borg, who won five consecutive titles in the late 1970s and was to tennis what the Beatles were to rock n' roll.

For the third year running, there is no Swedish man in Wimbledon's main draw. In fact, no man has appeared in the first round at any of the four majors since Robin Soderling here in 2011.

Like its onetime rival the USA, Swedish tennis is at a historic low point. Its highest ranked player is 24-year-old Markus Eriksson, who is well outside the top 300.

But Swedish influence in the sport – away from the court – has never been deeper. It is adding luster to a rich tennis history that has fallen on hard times.

From coaching to broadcasting to player development to business, Nordic fingers are everywhere.

Hall-of-Famer Mats Wilander, 49, has been a regular Eurosport commentator for years and runs a U.S.-based mobile instruction company out of a Winnebago called Wilander on Wheels.

Thomas Johansson, 32, the 2002 Australian Open champion, was tournament director for the Stockholm Open before becoming a consultant to Swedish-based clothing company H&M, which last year signed world No. 6 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.

Coaches with less polished playing resumes such as Peter Lundgren, Thomas Hogstedt and current Swedish David Cup Captain Fredrik Rosengren have impacted a number of top players, from Marcelo Rios to Maria Sharapova.

But what has lifted the distressed Swedish profile most is two Swiss affiliations: Stefan Edberg's decision to work part-time with Roger Federer this year, and Stan Wawrinka's victory at January's Australian Open less than a year after hiring Magnus Norman.

Both events, says former No. 2 Norman, "were pretty big news in Sweden."

"We don't have, really, any players to look up to," said Norman, 38. "It's nice that in some way they are writing about tennis."

And there are more in the mix.

After serving as marketing director for the ATP event in Stockholm, Jonas Bjorkman is commentating for Swedish television and working as an assistant for the Davis Cup team.

Thomas Enqvist is helping coach Fernando Verdasco of Spain.

"I think the Swedish impact in tennis is bigger outside the court than on the court for the moment," Johansson, Sweden's last major winner 12 years ago, wrote by email. "But everyone is working hard to change that."

It is not unusual for former players, especially elite ones, to stay involved in the game. The sport is populated with ex-pros in media, marketing, coaching and player representation.

"It's normal," says 1985 Wimbledon semifinalist Anders Jarryd, who works for the Swedish Tennis Federation coaching teenagers and runs a tennis center in Bastad.

Still, there might be something in the reserved, nose-to-the-ground Scandinavian character that is an added calling card.

"Probably pretty low-key, working pretty hard, pretty honest," Norman said of the Swedish ethos. "Maybe it's a good combination."

If there is a hint of embarrassment in the current state of affairs – and there is -- it's understandable.

Every year between 1974 and 1992, Sweden's powerful pipeline of players failed to win a Grand Slam title only twice. In 1988, they swept all four – the only time one country has done that in the modern era beyond Rod Laver's calendar year Grand Slam in 1969 for Australia.

From 1975 to 1998, Sweden also captured seven Davis Cup championships, tied with the USA for most by any country.

In September 1986, nearly half the top-10 hailed from Sweden, with Wilander, Edberg, Joachim Nystrom and Mikhail Pernfors occupying slots 2, 3, 9 and 10.

"A setback was always going to happen but to this extent is probably a big surprise even to myself," wrote six-time major winner Edberg in an email.

The brightest light of Swedish tennis, Borg, has kept a relatively low profile since he walked away from the game at 26.

"For Bjorn it was different," said Bjorkman. "He was the rock star in tennis. His life changed completely. He was probably more happy to live a quiet life."

But even the 11-time Grand Slam titlist has been making the rounds at majors of late, most recently at the French Open, where he presented the winner's trophy to Rafael Nadal.

Swedes say complacency after the glory years, poor decisions by sporting authorities, lack of cold-climate facilities and bigger interest in sports like hockey and soccer are some of the reasons for the downturn.

"Ten years ago everyone wanted to be (NHL great) Peter Forsberg," says 1986 French Open finalist Pernfors, who is a regular on the senior tour and helps with sponsors at tour events in Sweden from his base in Vero Beach, Fla.

The absence of Sweden's best millennial players hasn't helped, either.

Former top-five Soderling – the only player to beat Nadal at Roland Garros – has not played since winning the Bastad event in July 2011 due to health problems related to mononucleosis.

Joachim Johansson, a former world No. 9, has played one tournament since 2011 and has been all but retired because of a shoulder injury.

"It started to bounce back with Robin, but when he got sick the kids didn't see any players," Pernfors, 50, said.

To help put tennis back on the map, several retired players have launched tennis academies on home soil.

Norman established the Good to Great academy with former players Mikhail Tillstrom and Nicklas Kulti in 2011.

Edberg, 48, helped start the Ready Play Tennis Academy with Magnus Larsson and former Swedish Davis Cup captain Carl-Axel Hageskog.

The collective presence of these recognizable figures is boosting interest back home, several Swedes said. There is hope that the continued and varied involvement will carry over to the playing ranks soon.

"As nice as it is to see all those names in tennis," says former top-five Enqvist, "the best would be to get the new Bjorn Borg."

Post-Borg era, Swedish tennis influence is off the court

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