by Björn Hellberg
translated into English by Mauro Cappiello
Journalists Mats Holm and Ulf Roosvald provide us with a 250 page long and fact-filled book about the Swedish sport's probably most successful era of all time: the age when stars Björn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg gave tennis competitors a choral fright.
The fact that Offside is behind "When we were the best" guarantees itself for quality. Namely there's no one working or cooperating at Offside who doesn’t master their own subject.
And in fact this informed and well-written volume gives us a faithful account about the long and glittering era of domination by the blue and yellow colours ranging from individual tournaments to the Davis Cup.
ATP's official computer rankings were introduced in the autumn of 1973, and, since then, a total of 25 players topped the list. Amazingly enough, three of the early eight world number ones were from Sweden - a somewhat unlikely hindsight, for one of the globally largest sports.
In the 1980s, our dominance of the elite tennis was so emphatic that "Jocke" Nystrom (who had a best ranking of number 7) once was outside of the Davis Cup team even though, at that time, he was number ten in the world list!
In other words, a player with only nine men in front of him in the world ranking had no place among the top four in the Swedish national team.
Since then, it has notoriously gone downhill.
One can safely speak of a certain regression for Swedish tennis which even before the golden years lined up a considerable amount of successes.
To browse through the names of early stars, we find Donald Schroeder, Lennart Bergelin, Torsten Johansson, Janne Lundqvist, Uffe Schmidt and above all, Sven Davidson, the country's historically fourth most awarded tennis player.
But no one comes near the three titans:
- Bjorn Borg, enigmatic as Greta Garbo, all through his remarkable career;
- Mats Wilander, incomparable strategist and disciplined on court, with striking physical and mental strenght;
- Stefan Edberg, in private very discreet and reserved, but equipped with a superbly offensive arsenal on court.
Together, the trio won 138 international singles titles, 24 of which were Major events.
To these, several prestigious achievements in Davis Cup should be added.
Mats Holm and Ulf Roosvald have devoted a gigantic work to research. Although I followed tennis as a journalist with a magnifying glass and a telescopic sight for 56 years, there's plenty that I had no clue about in this book.
For example, that a young Mats Wilander was attacked verbally in a repulsive manner at a change of sides during a hard practice with the vulgar Jimmy Connors.
Or that the artist Sting once after a misunderstanding was about to be banned from tennis events by Birgitta Sjögren, the friendly wife of the very successful coach "Jonte".
I do not think it is particularly known that 17-year-old Mats Wilander, the evening before his Roland Garros final against Guillermo Vilas in 1982, prepared an acceptance speech, in which he intended to congratulate his rival for his victory. Fortunatelly he was forced to revise it less than a day later.
It's not either of public domain that Stefan Edberg, after retiring from professional tennis, regularly sparred in London against active top players Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, without ever losing a single practice match.
A lot, however, is fairly well known. As the row between Lennart Bergelin and Bjorn Borg before the 15-year-old debut in Davis Cup against New Zealand in Bastad in 1972. Many also know that Bjorn got a push in the direction of the white sport when his father Rune won a ping pong competition and was rewarded with a tennis racket he donated to his son.
It's not always that one as a reader shares all the ideas and perceptions presented in the book: for example Björn Borg's belief that him and Jimmy Connors were the first in the tennis world to practice extremely hard.
Certainly the two warriors gave all they had in training, but actually there were fully fledged precursors.
The legendary Australian Harry Hopman had long before ruthlessly wielded the fakir whip over his players - a sweat-dripping, excruciating effort that produced a plethora of champions like Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, to name a few of the brilliant players from Down Under.
Harry Hopman's uncompromising methods resulted in a happy ending: 15 Davis Cup trophies for Australia in the period from 1950 to 1967 and tons of Grand Slam trophies.
"When we were the best" mixes colourful episodes and dramatic events of the past at a furious pace. The authors run wildly through the decades: from the "divine" Suzanne Lenglen to the festive veteran tennis event in the Waterfront Congress Centre in Stockholm of recent years, from King Gustav V ravages to the 1986 bachelor party prank at the Kungliga Tennishallen with the "kidnapping" of Wilander immediately after his Stockholm Open final loss against Edberg.
Perhaps chronology could have been somewhat slightly more stringent, but, on the other hand, the temporal fluctuations create an appealing dynamics. The reading is never static, but pulsates with life and happenings.
Pointers to what Lennart Bergelin called "Swedish for the Swedes" contribute to authenticity: the writers really know what they are writing about.
Overall: an excellent assert drawing of a number of immortal Swedish Sports years.
Or, if you like: Holm and Roosvald deliver jointly a battery of effective serves and penetrating forehand drives.
A complaint? Well, I had hardly protested against an edgier choice of cover art...
Footnote: Bjorn Hellberg is a crime novelist and popular tv journalist. After more than 25 books about tennis and more than 30,000 articles and features in different media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television), he is undoubtedly considered as a tennis oracle.
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