“Love me Tender.’’
Huh? I asked Bjorn Borg over the noise, as he was jabbing his elbow into my ribs.
“If you write about this. I sang “Love me Tender.’’ OK?
Uhh. What are you supposed to do when you’re standing in a sports bar in Wichita, Kan., talking to your childhood sports hero?
Well, let me get back to that story in a minute. Bjorn Borg is back again. Two books and an HBO documentary are out now telling his story. His and John McEnroe’s. It was one of the great all-time rivalries in sports. But it lasted only 14 matches. Each won seven.
I don’t read a lot of sports books. And oftentimes, I like to take two or three books with me on the road to have a little variety, depending on my mood. At this moment, I’m going back and forth between two books:
One is Matt Cronin’s “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.’’ The other is Stephen Tignor’s “High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis’ Fiercest Rivalry.’’
Surely you can see the variety. One mentions Borg first in the title and the other mentions McEnroe. Now, on Saturday we get the HBO Documentary “McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice.’’
I know Tignor and Cronin, like both, respect both. So far, these are both excellent books, though I’m a little disappointed to hear that Borg’s famously low pulse rate might not have been true. It was a great day in my teen years when my doctor suggested I wear a medical tag around my neck telling people that my pulse was 45, 46, or whatever it was. If I passed out or something, people might think I’m dying.
It was my connection to Borg.
That and my $8 Fila socks.
Well, I also used the Bancroft Borg racquet, which was a beautiful thing until the laminated throat would start breaking apart. Once, the head fell off. And while I was a big Borg fan, I’ll admit I did switch to the Dunlop Maxply McEnroe after that. Still, the looping topspin forehand and two-handed backhand were almost Borg-like.
With all this Borg talk lately, my wife dragged out a picture of my old high school tennis team. And it’s uncanny: I looked absolutely nothing like Borg.
At the time, I never really noticed that he was like a “blond Viking god,’’ as McEnroe describes him. I thought his eyes were too close together. But he did have the hair and cool clothes and the cool demeanor. I didn’t know, until reading these books, that he was angry under the surface.
Well, when you travel around the country and the world covering sports, if you keep your eyes open, you run into some interesting stories. Once, I was in Torino, Italy, trapped in the back of a van with half the Argentine winter Olympics team. The driver and guy in the front passenger seat were bobsledders. We were lost for hours.
I’m not going to get into many details here, but word of advice: If you ever happen to be lost in Italy, do not get into a van driven by bobsledders.
Anyway, I have just one Borg story, one Borg meeting. It’s short, but true. Here goes:
It was in Wichita, Kan., years after he retired. He was playing TeamTennis against Buff Farrow and the Wichita Advantage. I don’t remember who won.
But afterward, both teams invited me to meet them at Hero’s sports bar in Old Town Wichita. My wife and I went. I had to finish writing first.
When we showed up, the first person we saw in the door was Borg. He was playing that shuffleboard game on a table. You know, you slide the puck on the long wood board?
Borg had that puck in one hand and a beer and cigarette comfortably in the other. What was I supposed to do?
Bjorn Borg is playing shuffleboard in Wichita, Kan., and I’m here with him.
So I asked: Is that how you got to be No. 1? Beer and cigarettes?
“What?’’ he yelled.
I repeated it.
He giggled, slumped down a little and elbowed me in the ribs.
A few minutes later, someone grabbed him to go up on stage and sing karaoke with a group. He stood behind some friends, while they all belted out “Baby Got Back.’’
Bjorn Borg. Wichita, Kan.. Karaoke. Baby Got Back.
When he was done, he went right back to the shuffleboard table, stopped and told me: “Love me Tender.’’
“If you write about this, I sang `Love me Tender.’ OK?’’
So it’s no book or documentary, but there’s my little Borg story. The teams went out later and did God knows what. For me it ended at a bar in Wichita, Kan., beer and cigarettes and Bjorn Borg on the karaoke, belting out, um, “Love me Tender.’’