Bjorn Borg on tennis myths [Archive] -

Bjorn Borg on tennis myths

09-16-2005, 07:04 PM
This is from a biography of him published in 1980, when he was still playing the game, and this section focuses on his opinion that conventional thinking about tennis can often be wrong and shouldn't be followed rigidly by players. It's interesting, because it shows how much tennis has changed with new racquet technology but there are some aspects that are still relevant today, especially considering the success of Nadal.

Breaking down tennis myths is as difficult as learning to play tennis left-handed if you're right-handed. In the days of the Puritans, when government leaders insisted there were witches, and that they were wicked and had to be burned at the stake, they were. Officials had to be right, didn't they? So, too, in tennis, myths have been offered as truth by the 'experts' with no room for questioning. There is no process whereby a tennis axiom can be tested and tossed out if times have changed, or if the 'truth' was not true in the first place. Countless tennis tips have been passed on from generation to generation without the fresh air of a new theory or any examination of the old one.

A prime problem of instruction methods is that the degree of acceptance is often directly related to the reputation of the man teaching, regardless of whether the theory is cock-eyed or not. For instance, Hall of Famer, Jack Kramer, says that on the return of serve you should hold your racket with the forehand grip and lean to the right, or forehand, side. I do exactly the opposite, holding with the backhand grip and the racket tilting all the way to the backhand.

Another juicy bit of instruction is the advice to hit the ball on the rise. There is a macho urge to strike the ball immediately it comes off the ground. No one has bothered to add that while hitting on the rise is the ultimate offensive game and dramatic to watch and play, it is low percentage tennis; it's flashy but won't win consistently. I conclude that the advantages of hitting on the rise - the element of surprise and using your opponent's power - are marginal compared to the risks.

Hitting on the rise is like half volleying and I half volley only because I have to - not because I want to - where my opponent has trapped me out of position and I'm forced to flick at the ball without normal preparation. The advantages of hitting a ball at the top of its bounce, on the other hand, are obvious. The ball's direction will be from a high point to a low point over the net and down into the court rather than the necessary arc from low to high over the net. In addition, you have more time for preparation. Often, when I need more time to set up, I'll hit the ball as it's falling from the bounce rather than meeting it at the top. The added time is important to two-handers whose backswing requires more stages to put together. That is not to say that some players are not sometimes successful in hitting on the rise, including Connors, Fleming and McEnroe, particularly on the return of serve when they are going for a one shot winner. However, the art of hitting on the rise is an imprecise science not recommended for pros or amateurs. And the concentration required to hit continually on the rise is intense, which will be tiring in a long match.

If you expect me to offer standard advice such as, 'take your racket back, follow through, and watch the ball', stop reading. I believe tennis is a game of instinct and common sense, rather than proper grips and tedious tips. Not that a youngster doesn't need the fundamentals of stroke production, but once basic guidelines have been laid down and those fundamentals have been etched on a beginner's mind by constant practice, progress from there is a state of mind rather than a state of form.

I have broken nearly every rule recommended by instruction books for the past fifty years. For example, the normal advice on where to stand when returning serve is a foot beyond the baseline. And when receiving a second serve - a foot inside the baseline. Anyone who has seen me play knows I don't do this.

Court Position for Service Return

I position myself at least ten feet past the baseline, and when Roscoe Tanner is serving, I retreat even further back. The reason? I want to get the longest look possible at a hard serve. I need ample time to sight the direction of delivery, then wind up and swing at the ball.

To me, standing at the baseline to return serve is for show-offs. Maybe a star can play a spectacular winner standing close in, but for every winner struck, he'll miss a dozen. My idea is to get every single service return back to as to pressurize the net man into missing. Because my goal is not to hit instant winners, there is no burden on me in returning serve.

Having more time to hit the ball by standing back, plus the no-pressure frame of mind, is a devastating combination. The result is that I end up hitting more outright winners on return serve than anyone else on the pro tour. Why? The element of surprise.

Most big servers on a fast surface (the grass at Wimbledon, the asphalt at the US Open) are spoiled by being able to make thirty per cent of their first serves virtually unreturnable, meaning that thirty per cent of the time the server fires, and then relaxes. He's lulled by the flubs of players standing close to the baseline. I return every serve. This both annoys and surprises opponents. Watch the next tournament match I play against Tanner or Jimmy Connors. Many times they'll serve a ball that is normally an ace against players who return from close in and, as a result, they relax on their way to net. Midway to the service line they stand up thinking the return won't come back. But because I'm standing so far away, I have plenty of time to have a solid crack at the ball which often zips by the unprepared net man.

Why do receivers continue to stand so close in? Mostly because it's macho to face a cannonball next to the barrel, like the gladiators in the olden days chasing each other with axes or swords at close range.

Two stars - John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors - have such swift eye-to-brain-to-arm motor control that they actually see the ball coming at them sooner than other players. This phenomenal reflex capacity means that they can stand in the mouth of the cannon, so to speak, and pick up the approaching serve instantly. But even Connors, as he gets older, has started to lose this facility, leaving McEnroe as the only pro with 'radar eyes'. And McEnroe admits this ability does not help him at all in returning serve on clay, where the ball slows down enough for anyone to return it efficiently. You can add the fact that only a few fools try to serve and volley consistently on clay, and that eliminates the receiver's need to surprise the server.

As I say, the macho image has much to do with why pros and amateurs alike dig in close to the baseline to return serve. Me? I want my macho moment in the winner's enclosure rather than during a few isolated points in the match.

My advice works for beginners, too. Many amateurs crash their first serve and pitty-pat the second. I suggest standing way behind the baseline to return serve to give yourself sufficient time to take your racket back and swing, in the unlikely event of the crash serve going in. Even after a first serve fault, move in only to the point where you have ample time to prepare your stroke. Of course there is a 'give-up' in standing back. An opponent might exploit the angles of a wide serve, but the benefits of having more time, in my opinion, far outweigh the risks.

I'm not alone in my cautious philosophy of waiting for the ball far past the baseline rather than taking a bolder position right on it. Guillermo Vilas, who has one of the best clay court records in recent history, also waits patiently behind the baseline. Certainly there are some disadvantages for top pros with this style, the main one being that they have to be in extraordinary shape to execute this defensive game plan successfully. A simple study of court angles shows that you don't have to run as far if you stand in further and move along the diagonals towards the net when, in a sense, you are cutting the ball off before it becomes a punishing stroke. Also, you can use your opponent's pace more effectively if there is less distance between you and the net.

Pancho Gonzalez was one of the first proponents of manoeuvering an opponent like a puppet, while standing on the baseline tape. But Pancho hit an underspin backhand and a forehand with only moderate overspin. He was merely waiting for the first opportunity to attack.

My game is based on patience. Not attack. But my topspin drives prevent foes attacking because I have enough control to shoot my groundstrokes from side to side. If an opponent decides to come to net behind less than a perfect approach, he is playing into my strength - dipping passing shots. My game is structured so that I can direct the flow of play with steadiness, yet counterpunch against an aggressive net rusher. In other words, I don't need to take chances with a killer serve and risky full-bore volleys. I win without having the traditional big game - which should be music to everyone's ears, because the serve and volley are the game's two most difficult strokes to master.

In a sense, my design of play is perfect when used against those pros who learn their tennis 'by the book'. The 'book' methods are so routine that the unorthodox player has a big edge - he will always face foes who play according to predictable patterns. The traditionalists, on the other hand, can be upset by challengers committed to the unconventional and unexpected.

Rally Position

Another example of my ignoring standard instruction is my court position during a rally. Most 'experts' recommend that forehands and backhands should be tackled from approximately two feet behind the baseline. I double, and sometimes triple, that. Why? Because the exchange of groundstrokes is a game of attrition. If the baseline style is played properly, no one hits a winner from the backcourt.

There is no percentage in taking a wild poke at a forehand and hoping it will hit an inch from the sideline corner and scoot for a winner. The odds are stacked against this ploy. First, in aiming for such a small target on court, the chances are you'll miss it outright. Perhaps, by some miracle, the ball may land safely, but if you're up against a laser-fast runner like Gerulaitis, he'll track the shot down, anyhow, and you'll have to start all over again with double the odds loaded against you this time.

What is incredible to me about the 'experts'' advice on court positioning, is that no distinction is made between slow and fast surfaces. On clay, there is no reason not to give yourself plenty of time to run down shot after shot. Standing far behind the baseline gives you an opportunity to retrieve, with little fear that your foe can attack your defensive scurrying.

However, on a fast grass court, the ball tends to skid and stay low meaning you have to move closer to the baseline to scoop up the ball before it bounces twice. On cement or asphalt, groundstrokes move with greater velocity than on clay and that requires a position nearer the baseline, otherwise the ball will get out of range too quickly. Also there is a difference between returning a ball which has lost its power and returning a ball, from the same location, that still has plenty of force behind it.

What all this really means is that you should be flexible in your overall approach to tennis. Don't get trapped by cast iron rules. Just as every player is either taller, shorter, lighter, heavier, stronger, or weaker than his opponent, so too do situations and abilities to meet them vary enormously from player to player.

For instance, being two-handed means that my reach is shorter on the backhand than every 'one-handed' player. This suggests that I need more time to get into position anywhere on court, and that, particularly on the volley, I must prepare my approach to net more carefully than Gerulaitis or McEnroe, who both have machine-gun reactions in the forecourt.

But the best example of the need for adaptability is at Wimbledon. Since I have won Wimbledon four times in a row, it is difficult to argue that my tennis is inflexible. This great Championship is the only major title on grass - and the pros must adjust to the surface remarkably quickly to survive even a few rounds.

To the true Wimbledon expert, there must also be a subtle but crucial adjustment made between the first and second weeks at Wimbledon. During the first five days of play on the sacred surface at the All England Club, the pitch is lush, green and fast, forcing lightning low bounces, and sometimes no bounces at all. The forceful servers tend to have unusual success the first week, even if the rest of their game is not of the same high standard. I am forced to serve and volley the first week because I can't afford to let the ball touch the ground, so erratic and rapid is its bounce.

But by the second week, the grass has become worn down and is brown from the heavy pounding of hundreds of tennis shoes on the turf. The Centre Court is so packed and solid that it plays very much like clay, my favourite surface. By the quarter-finals, the playing surface is so even and true that I can afford the luxury of staying back on serve and swapping groundstrokes. That's my strength.

If my message about the demand for innovation and originality in tennis is still not getting through, it should encourage every novice to know that the very first thing I did in tennis was wrong according to all the teaching pros. I used the western forehand grip with a closed racket face, which everyone said was too wristy and unreliable. I was told that no modern champion used the western grip and I was given a lot of advice in the beginning to change to a more accepted approach. Well, my forehand has become my best shot. I'm glad I didn't listen.

The point is that tennis is a highly personalized game. You should do what seems to work for you, rather than be regimented into a lock-step stroke that may be safe and easy to teach, but does not allow your unique talent to emerge.

My backhand is equally unorthodox, double-handed, with a closed racket face, and full of wrist. Because my basic foundation in stroke mechanics is so untraditional, the results are also unusual. For instance, the bedrock of all groundstroke instructions is to hit the ball with great depth, i.e. 'a ball hitting within a foot of the baseline is an excellent shot'. Not the way I play tennis. I believe successful tennis is a game of consistency and of taking advantage of proper percentages. Though my passing shots often look spectacular, there is a huge safety factor built into them.

Spin and Depth

If I strike a groundstroke that lands a foot from my opponent's baseline, it's a mistake, because I'm only aiming for two yards past the service box, for security. My groundstrokes are so wristy that it would be impossible to control a ball aimed for the baseline with regularity. I do get depth, however, by using murderous topspin, which carries the ball deep into the backcourt after the bounce. In this fashion I achieve depth and keep a margin for error.

All this is possible because of my 'crazy' western forehand grip and my wristy two-handed backhand, both of which force me to hit with exaggerated overspin. Violent topspin is my trademark, and if I hadn't had the courage to improvise when I was young, and shatter the conventional beliefs about grips and depth, I might still be struggling through the qualifying rounds at Wimbledon, rather than aiming for a string of successive titles.

I'm advising you not to be preoccupied by rigid rules of instruction; learn your own talents and never be afraid of experimenting with what suits your game best. Remember, I'm trying to teach you to get the ball and your mind over the net.

There's a lot of fascinating stuff in there - it shows what the tactical thinking of many players was like back in the era of wooden racquets, especially on clay, and we can see how some of it still applies today but other aspects have been overtaken by modern technology. I mean, the young Agassi was the perfect example of the flashy but erratic hitter on the rise that Borg mentions, but he's refined the tactic and made it so successful that it's a prerequisite for a lot of current players.

Equally, Nadal's achievements on clay this year show that the surface hasn't been changed nearly as much by new technology/improvements in strength and fitness as the faster surfaces have been. So much of what Borg cites as his major weapons, his consistency and attritional style plus the use of topspin to achieve depth without having to aim for the lines, rings true with Nadal at the moment. On the other hand, the return position of Guga, the most recent great claycourter, on hardcourts has often been noted as a big weakness and a reason why he was never quite as successful on hard, and people now say that Nadal needs to make the same adjustments and stand closer in to the baseline to get the better of big servers on fast courts.


09-16-2005, 07:19 PM
A very very good article. Playing the percentage. The analogy with Nadal is interesting. I found very interesting the part where he talks about how grass was almost like clay in the second week of wimbledon.

09-16-2005, 07:23 PM
It's been observed before, but that was definitely a major factor in Borg's success at Wimbledon - the fact that by the time he met the elite attacking players, people like McEnroe, Connors, Tanner et al, the surface played to his strengths rather than to theirs. In 1979 he nearly got knocked off in the first week by Vijay Amritraj, pulling out the fourth set in a TB and eventually winning 6-2 in the fifth, but then cruised through the quarters and semis before overcoming Tanner in another five-setter in the final. All credit to him for adapting his game to serve-volley in the first week and stay back in the second, it shows his game was less one-dimensional than you might imagine.

09-16-2005, 08:11 PM
Standing 10 feet behind the baseline.... how would it work with today's kick serves out wide? It is difficult to put some of the great man's perspective from the '70s and '80s into current perspective. But I know for sure it worked. I mean, how many did he have? 10 slams or more?

09-16-2005, 08:12 PM
11. But 0 on hardcourts, of course.

09-16-2005, 08:15 PM
nice :yeah:

09-16-2005, 09:23 PM
That's really fascinating, Sjengster, thanks! :)

It's true, I couldn't help thinking of Agassi throughout that article, since he seems to have succeeded doing so many of the things that Borg advises against! I guess few players have Agassi's reflexes, however... but at the same time, few have Borg's raw footspeed. He could succeed far behind the baseline because he was just so damn fast, rather like Nadal today.

Reading his comments on court positioning, it seems that McEnroe's eventual ability to beat Borg came from his ability to take advantage of Borg's deeper court positioning by coming to the net. The Borg return (unlike the Connors and Agassi returns) did not catch McEnroe by surprise as easily because he had much more time to read it and get into the net.

I wish more great players had written about their ideas on these issues. :yeah:

Action Jackson
09-16-2005, 09:27 PM
Thanks for posting this Sjengster it makes a change from most of the garbage that has been on GM lately.

As for Borg a lot of people don't realise his two hand backhand basically came from his ice hockey background and what suited him doesn't necessarily works for other players, but he was intelligent enough to adapt his game to grass and his serve was underrated.

prima donna
09-16-2005, 09:46 PM
Well spoken, by the 2nd best tennis player of all-time.

Borg seemed to have no ego, maybe that's why he was a winner.
Borg seemed to have no pride or a flare to do things with excessive zest.
Borg seemed not to care, he packed a lunch and got the job done however he possibly could.

I've always admired Borg more than any player, because of his calm and coolness. Sampras was the same way, but not because it was deliberate or lack of pressure, more so due to his horribly dull personality. It wouldn't allow for him to show much emotion or feel any pressure. Sampras also had a bit of a bloated ego. If you'd managed to drag him into a 5th set tiebreak, he was boiling inside. Borg or Federer would say, ok, we are here and now I will proceed to win the match.

Borg got the job done, that's why he's the 2nd best of all time. This article defies what I've been told all my life, I remember when I first began to play tennis and I played with this guy that always said "take the ball off the rise", that's low PERCENTAGE TENNIS EVEN FOR PROFESSIONALS. I mean, come on.

The man was a genius, this proves that even though he fried a few brain cells partying, many were still left.

09-23-2005, 12:47 AM

Well, there has to be more mileage in this subject than just 8 replies :p

09-23-2005, 12:51 AM
Bjorg is a scandinavian. Great tennis player, but for some reason you don't see him going deep in Pro tourneys, anymore. I think.

09-23-2005, 01:35 AM

Well, there has to be more mileage in this subject than just 8 replies :p

Unfortunately Sjengster, your thread here needs too many brain cells to process ;)

09-23-2005, 01:40 AM

Well, there has to be more mileage in this subject than just 8 replies :p

The threads that tend to prosper these days involve gossiping, personal attacks or preposterous statements. This thread does not meet these requirements for MTF prosperity.

09-23-2005, 01:46 AM
Thanks for the article by the way. It seems that Borg did not leave any immediate successors in terms of style. Lendl, Becker and Agassi appear much more infuential for the development of the modern game. I guess this has to do with the fact that Borg's style relies on a combination of athleticism and mental power to be imitated. In a sense, the entire school of claycourt tennis starting in the mid-90's have evolved around this type of play and it is interesting to see one coincidence: Nobody after Borg won at Wimbledon following this type of play. That alone signifies the greatness of the man.

09-23-2005, 01:47 AM
This isn't just vanity on my part, the other thread below asks which players have had the biggest influence on the modern game, and this article is definitely related to that - ie, how those players of the 80s and 90s have changed the perception of standard percentage tennis from what it was in the Borg era, with new technology and more powerful hitting.

09-23-2005, 01:56 AM
Oops... I missed that thread. Basically i agree with RonE analysis there. I will add JMac in the discussion. It is interesting that the big servers of the 90's were more influenced by Becker than by JMac or Edberg and i wonder whether the apparent demise of expert volleying in the game is a matter of fashion or points towards a natural evolution of the power game.

09-23-2005, 02:00 AM
Fantastic article, Sjengster. I haven't really watched Borg play, so this is really insightful as far as his playing style and how the game has changed (and also stayed the same) since then. It would be really interesting to see if his contemporaries had such comments to make about their own style of play - and if any of them had such a thoughtful, level-headed approach to the game. It's kind of ironic that in spite of all their differences in mechanics, both Agassi and Borg turned out to be such proponents of percentage-tennis.

09-23-2005, 02:04 AM
As a kid I always tried to walk like Duckman Agassi, but was beginng my parents to buy me a bandana and wooden raquets like Borg, thinking it woudl make me a great player. lol

Is it true that in a typical Borg match, he would have like 50 winners and 10 UE? If so, that's far and away better than Agassi with his 25 winners/30 UE crap.

09-23-2005, 03:39 AM
This isn't just vanity on my part, the other thread below asks which players have had the biggest influence on the modern game, and this article is definitely related to that - ie, how those players of the 80s and 90s have changed the perception of standard percentage tennis from what it was in the Borg era, with new technology and more powerful hitting.

It's amazing how much the game evolves in just 2 or 3 years let alone 25 years. What I find interesting today is how Nadal has been so successful with his anti-modern game tactics. When a player with ball striking talent is young, coaches are naturally going to teach that youngster that an attacking player will rule the court. It is better to be on the offensive than the defensive because if you lose, you lose on your own terms. You will not be the one being pushed around the court retrieving for a coupel of hours only to be beaten dwon in the end.

In the long run, Nadal will win the majority of his matches playing % tennis on all surfaces (grass included) because I believe that there are very few players taht can actually hit him off of the court. Agassi pushed him around on many points in Cincy but could not put him away with the big shot like Blake did in the USO He will be vunerable to a guy who plays above his level and thereby ruins the % tennis. Blake and the Berdman come to mind but I have a feeling that the Berdman is going to be hitting a lot of people off of the court very soon. The new technology allows for more and more big hitting days where all the balls seem to be withing 12 inches of the lines and hit with much pace.

It will be interesting to see how Nadal changes his tactics on hardcourts, grass and carpet to adjust for this possibility thereby taking matters inot his own hands.

Action Jackson
09-23-2005, 05:35 AM
The threads that tend to prosper these days involve gossiping, personal attacks or preposterous statements. This thread does not meet these requirements for MTF prosperity.

That's the thing the actual discussion of tennis in here is one of those rare beasts almost like an Alberto Berasategui win on grass.

09-23-2005, 05:37 AM
The threads that tend to prosper these days involve gossiping, personal attacks or preposterous statements. This thread does not meet these requirements for MTF prosperity.

Very true most of the time, but remember there are select threads with fantastic longevity that are updated/bumped regularly. :)

09-23-2005, 02:13 PM
After reading Borg's comments about grass in the second week of Wimbly...a began to really wonder...why did Lendl insist on serving and vollying if the surface was like clay in the second week...To me...this was one of the worst strategies in the history of tennis...that he made it to so many semis and two finals was incredible...BUT, had he followed Borg's opinions...he might have won had he stayed back... :sad:

09-23-2005, 07:53 PM
This is from a biography of him published in 1980, when he was still playing the game, and this section focuses on his opinion that conventional thinking about tennis can often be wrong and shouldn't be followed rigidly by players. It's interesting, because it shows how much tennis has changed with new racquet technology but there are some aspects that are still relevant today, especially considering the success of Nadal.
Thoughts?i saw borg and have many many of his big matches on dvd. he is the man of the highest marks in my estimation, though i see little that could stop federer from at least making an emormous bid to be seen in that most prized position of accomplishment...MY top spot! :lol:

however, a number of these points, ie hitting the ball on the rise, have to do with tennis truths with a wood racquet so he is speaking the truth on many things which are only antiquated due to the tools of the sport and what was possible to do then vs. now. still, great reading. thanks!!