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Bjorkman blown away but keeps his dignity
Doubles specialist Swede lost in record time but still left the court a happy man, writes Richard Jago
Saturday July 8, 2006- The Guardian
If Jonas Bjorkman does now quit singles, as he is considering, yesterday will have been an extraordinary sweet-and-sour finish, in which the most emotional win of his career was followed one of his most embarrassing defeats.
Most people will understand his being able to prise only four games from a brilliant Roger Federer, especially as a tired Bjorkman has been trying to pursue the old-fashioned dream of success here in three events. But there were some distinctly unsympathetic vibes towards the 34-year-old after Wednesday's extraordinary five-set victory over Radek Stepanek, which made him the oldest semi-finalist since Jimmy Connors in 1987.
"Is it possible to describe what you are feeling other than the usual clichés like 'I feel great'?" he was rather insultingly asked. Bjorkman made his point obliquely, replying: "Could I say it in Swedish?"
Bjorkman is low-profile partly because his best successes are in other areas - he has eight career grand slam doubles titles - but also because of the emotionless stereotype often attached to the Swedish. In fact he is talkative, outgoing, sociable, popular with his colleagues and a good mimic, as well as a consistently good singles player.
And those who saw Wednesday's win will have an idea of what he is. Bjorkman welled up with tears and performed extravagant gestures to all sides, inventing a new way of celebrating in the process, the self-hug. "I was just enjoying that moment so much, seeing everyone standing up . . . that's why I wanted to show everyone I appreciated all the support and give them a hug from the court."
For months he has been considering quitting singles, because having been in the top four he plunged to 126, and although he recovered to regain a regular ATP Tour place, he won only two matches out of 11 this year until the grass season began. Of his Wimbledon run he said: "I would have bet anything it wouldn't happen."
How could it have, at his age? "I'm not sure - with a lot of Advil," he joked, referring to the pain-killers he claims his body increasingly needs. "And having Todd Woodbridge [three-time fellow Wimbledon doubles champion] around me makes it good. He maybe has something magic around him that makes it possible."
Bjorkman might also have mentioned his capacity for discipline which may be connected to his father being a tennis coach but which is related to his difficult beginnings. He was nothing special as a junior. He did not have great support from the Swedish federation and was obliged to go his own way.
Eventually that helped. He knows how to fight when it's not easy. It has brought amusingly pedantic side-effects. There are locker-room jokes about Bjorkman laying clothes out - clean things here, and dirty things there, everything pernickety and professional.
His game, too, is well planned. There is a meticulous preparation for his serve, ground strokes which run on rails, volleys punched and not swung too much, tactical caution mixed with technical variety, and no encouraging the opposition with displays of frustration. Bjorkman is also one of the best ever at returning serve.
Discipline requires release, though, and his greatest has travelled with him - his wife Petra and their son Max. But there have been times when the three-year-old has said he does not want his dad to play any more. That may be a reason why, despite this, he stops soon.
"If you had asked me two weeks ago I would have been happy just to come through the first round," Bjorkman admits. "Playing the semis is like a big shock. I have been trying to enjoy every moment because even if I still play doubles I won't have too many Wimbledons left."