Borg made tennis cool; the hair, clothes, partying, a line of underwear. He still to this day epitomizes Swedish cool. He inspired a whole generation of players too with funding pouring in and the game on a high. Another aspect of Swedish tennis that was admirable was their sportsmanship, if a little icy cool. In an era of McEnroe and Connors, they were the antidote to all the childishness.
No wonder then, that the 80s was another golden period. Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Kent Carlsson and Anders Jarryd spearheaded that era. 1988 was a banner year with Wilander winning 3 of 4 Grand Slams, Edberg picking up Wimbledon and even Carlsson taking home 5 clay court titles. By the end of the decade, Edberg was the official King of Swedish tennis and set the stage for the 1990s.
The 1990s proved to be another prosperous and prolific period for Swedish players. Not quite scaling the heights of their forerunners, several players still scored significant victories. Thomas Enqvist racked up 17 titles and an Australian Open final appearance. Magnus Larsson doubled his career earnings in 1 week with victory in the Grand Slam Cup. Magnus Gustafsson won 4 Bastad titles in Sweden as well as further titles mainly on clay. Jonas Bjorkman was also starting to become one of the best doubles players on the planet.
During the 2000s, the number of good players decreased but 2 players broke out. Tommy Johansson shocked the world by winning the 2002 Australian Open. Magnus Norman proved to be an excellent clay courter becoming a serious rival for Gustavo Kuerten, reaching the French Open final in 2000 and becoming world number 2 for a short period.
The mid 2000s saw the emergence of Robin Soderling, who became a permanent fixture in the top 5. Initially an indoor specialist, he did the impossible by snapping Nadal’s winning streak at Roland Garros. His giant wind ups suiting the slow surface ironically. He remains the sole Swedish player in the top 300.
The Nearly Men
One player who looked to be heading toward a fantastic career around 2005 was Joachim ‘Pim Pim’ Johansson. An ace machine (hitting 51 in one match against Agassi), he was plagued by shoulder injuries, whose career was cut short. A few aborted comebacks later, he officially retired in 2011.
Another Swedish hope, Andrea Vinciguerra was touted for great things, but injuries again stunted his progression. Doubles specialist Robert Lindstedt is no spring chicken at 34 and Michael Ryderstedt, respectfully, is a journeyman by all accounts.
How did this Tennis empire crumble?
As we’re seeing in Serbia, success breeds success and there always needs to be players that are winning big titles to inspire. The slow reduction in Swedish Grand Slam winners coupled with an egalitarian nation that perhaps sees Tennis as a more elitist game now is my take. Emerging nations in general such as Russian, Serbia, Czech Republic and Argentina, where socially or economically there is something to play for, has a direct impact.
Sweden is such a mature country at this point that, team sports seem to provide more motivation like Ice Hockey and Soccer. Former players like Wilander have expressed deep concern about the state of tennis in Sweden but he’s now living in Idaho and teaches mainly Americans. Edberg lived for a long time in London and Borg checked out of the game so long ago. Perhaps Sweden felt abandoned by their former greats?
Their World Group status in Davis Cup hangs by a thread, which is disaster for a nation that has won 7 titles. As we enter a new decade, Sweden risks falling off the tennis map entirely as Robin Soderling ages and drops down the rankings.
Let’s hope this once great tennis nation can rule again.