Tennis: Early birth key to Open
5:00AM Sunday December 16, 2007
By Michael Brown
At 35, Jonas Bjorkman doesn't wish for Christmas to come early any more but he is hoping his second child does or he will have to pull out of both the Heineken and Australian Opens.
The 59th-ranked Swede and his wife Petra are expecting their second child on January 15 and, while this might appear to rule him out of New Zealand's premier tennis event, signs suggest the baby could arrive early.
"It's 50-50 at the moment," Bjorkman says from his home in Monte Carlo. "I have entered just in case because if it arrives early I will head over to Auckland and Australia. The baby is already in position so it might be two or three weeks early. If not, I will take January off."
He took January 2003 off when his son Max was born and that year's Australian Open is the one Grand Slam tournament he has missed in 14 years. This translates to a record of 55 appearances in the past 56 Slams.
If Bjorkman pulled out of the Heineken Open, it would rob the tournament of two of its original starters.
Last week No 2 seed and world No 15 Guillermo Canas of Argentina withdrew because of wrist tendonitis. He is likely to be sidelined for four months.
While Canas is one of the better players going around, Bjorkman is better known having won six singles and 51 doubles titles and more than US$14 million since turning professional in 1991.
He banked US$43,000 when he won the 1997 Heineken Open, his first ATP Tour singles title. He added a further two singles titles that year as well as helping Sweden claim the Davis Cup in a watershed year.
"It was an incredible year, my best," he remembers. "I finished the year at No 4 in the rankings. Auckland started that all off.
"Your first title is always going to be a memorable one. I was mentally ready to win it because I had played in a couple of finals the previous year. I remember we had to play the final on a Monday because there had been a lot of rain all week.
"My only regret [from that year] was that I lost to Greg Rusedski in the semifinals of the US Open because I would have played my friend Pat Rafter in the final and would have had a really good chance of winning a Grand Slam title."
The closest Bjorkman has come since was reaching the semifinals of last year's Wimbledon, when he ran into Roger Federer. He's also reached the last eight five times.
He's managed to console himself by winning eight Grand Slam doubles events, largely with Australian Todd Woodbridge, but it's in singles that he takes the most satisfaction.
It might come as something as a surprise for a player once ranked the top doubles player in the world but he doesn't often practise doubles. It's become something of a specialist discipline with most top doubles players opting out of singles.
"I'm really proud of what I have achieved in doubles but making the semifinals of the US Open and Wimbledon in singles are the highlights of my career," he says.
"Before Wimbledon, I had only won a couple of matches and I had been telling a lot of people that it could be my last year. I'm so glad that I haven't taken that step yet because I am still having so much fun and actually feel like I am still improving.
"I am looking forward to retirement, to putting my feet up and having a beer, but I still look forward to playing on centre courts around the world in front of a lot of people and causing an upset. It's also a great challenge to play all of these youngsters coming up and I still feel I can play some great tennis."
A lot of the younger generation admit they find it uncomfortable playing against Bjorkman.
As the oldest player in the world's top 100, it's unsurprising that he plays an old-school style. He's also got a few tricks in his tennis bag that a number of the young clones aren't taught at their regimented training schools, largely because he's not capable of smacking down 200km/h missiles rally after rally.
"These days it's all about power," Bjorkman says. "There's not enough finesse, which is unfortunate because the game needs different styles. Federer plays with power and finesse which is why I love watching him.
"A lot of guys only go for power. They don't really want to play me because I'm different to all the others. I sneak into the net, slice a few balls. They don't really like that."
As a veteran on the circuit and a former president of the Players' Council, Bjorkman is well placed to evaluate tennis' development over the past 10-15 years.
He's quick to point out that the standard has improved dramatically, although in a fairly robotic way, but he lamented the fact it hadn't taken advantage of its place in world sport.
"We are doing well [as a sport] but I think we could have done so much better," he says. "We lost a lot to golf. One of the dominant sports of the 1990s, we are now quite far behind.
"Just look at the prize money. This year is the first time it has improved since 1990. There's no doubt the guys at the top make huge amounts of money but, for a lot of the guys in the top 100, you can't guarantee you will make a living. It's a bit of a gamble.
"Golf is way ahead. There were 85 players who made more than $1 million [in golf] but there were only 11 in tennis last year. People only see what the top guys earn but it's tough for those below that level. We have ice-hockey players in Sweden who have never played for the national team earning a great salary [compared to tennis]."
For Bjorkman, it's not about the money, as he has more than enough after 16 years on the circuit. Whether he makes the Heineken Open, though, is up to his unborn daughter.
JONAS AND THE WOW
Name: Jonas Bjorkman
Singles titles: 6 (including 1997 Heineken Open)
Doubles titles: 51
Career earnings: US$14,019,594
* Bjorkman is well-known on the tennis circuit for impersonating other players, particularly Stefan Edberg. Players now are starting to impersonate him.
* He also has a trademark victory step, known as the Brussels Step, which involves grabbing the base of his shoe and performing an exaggerated step. It was taken from a group of Swedish comedians and he does it when he wins tournaments or the Davis Cup.
* Bjorkman is superstitious and never step on lines.