Bjorn Borg, absent last year because he was playing World Team Tennis in the United States, has returned to try to recapture the French Open championship that he won the aging "teen angel" in 1974-75.
The seemingly unsinkable Swede, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday next week, looks at home on the slow, red-clay courts of Stade Rolland Garros, which is as much a part of Paris in the springtime as chestnut trees, lovers strolling hand in hand and the sun-kissed flower beds that suddenly have blossomed in a blaze of color after months of unseasonably cold and rainy weather.
"The sun has come out just for the championships," a rosy-cheeked young woman who works for the French Tennis federation beamed yesterday.
Indeed, with the shift of the Australian Open from January to December and the change of the U.S. Open from clay courts to a hard surface, the French Open has this year assumed a special place in the sun. It is now the first of the four traditional grand slam tournaments, and once again the world's premier clay-court test.
Borh was given a two-day rest after winning his second Italian Open title Sunday and will play his opening match today against Eric Deblicker, a bespectacled, unorthodox but acrobatic player who is ranked No. 5 in France.
Borg is the No. 1 seed and a heavy favorite here despite a formidable presence who was not in Rome: last year's French and U.S. Open champ Guillermo Vilas, who opened defense of his title impressively yesterday by whiping New Zealander Onny Parun off the center court, 6-0, 6-4, 6.0.
Borg routed Vilas in the 1975 final here, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, and has beaten him the last five times they have played, dating back to December, 1975.
Borg also has career records of 13-0 over Eddie Dibbs, 8-0 over Harold Solomon and 6-0 over Corrado Barazzutti, the other most defensive players among the top dozen racketeers in the world. That is persuasive evidence that Borg cannot be beaten from the backcourt unless he has an off day, which hasn't happened in years.
"It's incredible that he can be so consistent, but he loves to play guys who stay back against him," said Dibbs, who won only seven games from Borg in three sets in their semifinal in Rome.
"Some days, he hardly misses a ball. You have to be mentally tough, tell yourself you'll hit a million balls and run after everything, and even then you might not get a set.
"I think Borg is a lot tougher than Vilas," added Dibbs. "He hits with more topspin and doesn't miss as many balls. They're both like iron men out there - they don't give anything away - but Borg has improved his serve a great deal. He's never had a concentration lapse against me. To tell you the truth, I've never seen him get upset."
Dibbs had some brief success in the second set at Rome by making drop shots to Borg's forehand and covering the down-the-line scoop that is the Swede's almost automatic response to that shot, and by hitting little slice backhands, sharply agled and low, to Borg's two-fisted backhand, then covering the cross-court reply.
"That may be the only way to play him. Either that or come to the net on everything," said Dibbs. "Somehow, you have to break up his rhythm from the baseline. He likes to run from side to side, and when he stays back there and gets grooved, he just overwhelms you."
Borg is the only current top player whom Dibbs has never beaten. The same is true for Solomon, who has never even come close.
Solomon is ill-equipped to tdouble Borg because he hits high-bouncing, topspin shots off both wings, which gives the fleet Swede a chance to get to the ball and pound it. Solomon cannot abandon his two-fisted backhand and hit a one-handed slice the way Dibbs can, and he doesn't really have a drop shot -- only a cross-court, angled dink that Borg covers superbly.
"The right play against Borg is what Dibbs tried -- short to the backhand and low -- but that's not my game," Solomon said yesterday. "He loves anything high, so he nails me. I've got to gry to develop some other stuff on the oractice court if I'm even going to do well against him.
"Vilas isn't as quick as Borg, he's not mentally strong, and I don't think he hits as hard. He doesn't have one big shot that can kill you the way Borg's forehand can. Vilas was awfully tough last summed, but he's not as consistent as Borg. I've never seen borg get flustered."
Roscoe Tanner, another of Borg's victims in Rome, is 1-3 against him this year, but had never felt out of a match he did in their firstmeeting on European lay. "It's very difficult to figure out a way to beat him on this stuff, or to even get games," said Tanner." I practiced with with him for a week in Monte Carlo before going to Rome, and I was amazed. He doesn't make edrors and he foesn't get tired.
"One of the things that makes it so tough is that his shots bounce so high, you're always hitting up around your head. On other surfaces, you can take some of those balls and go in, but on clay he'll pass you every time. So you stay back and your arm starts to fell like lead."
As if, as Dibbs once said, you had been combing your fair for three hours.
Tanner is as impressed as his colleagues by Borg's legendary cool and mental tenacit.
"He doesn't let a thing both him. In fact, he doesn't even seem to notice distriactions," Tanner said. "His concentdation is so well directed, he seems to be totally unaware of anything except what's happening on the court."
Borg goes about his business quietly, fraternizing mainly with his coach, Swedish David Cup Captain Lennart Bergelin "He is like a big brother") and his fiancee, Romanian player Mariana Simionescu.
"He's personable. The times T've talked to him, I like him. He's a good guy, but he keeps pretty much to himself," said Tanner.
"Technically, he's one of the toughest guys to play. He hits with so much topspin that the ball comes over and dips, which makes it difficult to handle. His shots are tough to volley. You can't establish a good, clean rhythm against him the way you sometimes can against (Jimmy Connors).
"...He just picks a sjot and hits it. It may be completely the wrong shot to hit, but he makes it work. He doesn't think, 'Should IK GO CROSS COURT OR DOWN THE LINE?' He just picks a shot and goes for it Boom. That's confidence. And he hits it so well that it comes off."
Twice in the last two months, Bodg has defaulted in tournaments with infected blists -- on a toe during a World Championship Tennis tournament at Rotterdam and on his right thumb during the WCT Finals in Dallas 2 1/2 weeks ago.
He had a complete physical examination, including blood tests, at Monte Carlo, the week before the Italian Open, and doctors found no organic explanation for the blisters. Apparently, he just has sensitive skin. It seems to be his only vulnerable point.
In first-round matches yesterday, Solomon erased a 2-5 deficit in the second set and scotted past big-serving John Feaver, 6-2, 7-5, 6-2, and Adthur Ashe wiped out a 1-4 deficit in the first set to beat 12th seeded Phil Dent, a semifinalist last year, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
Ashe served well, finding the pressurized American balls being used here for the first time to his liking, and ended the match with an ace. Dent had a tender right ankle and the flu but, in typical Aussie fashion, made no excuses. "If you step on the court, you're fit," he said.
Brian Gottried, runner-up to Vilas last year, romped over fellow American Bill Scanlon, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0, and No. 5 seed Manual Orantes, runner-up to Borg in 1974, beat Tom Okker, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, in a center-court match spiced with some lovelyshot-making.