Bjorn Borg admits his long sabbatical from tennis is taking its toll. "I have to get into better shape; I have to play more, and practice more," he said after Jimmy Connors had beaten him in an exhibition challenge match tonight.
Borg looked tired late in the best-of-five $60,000 match, in which 1982 Wimbledon champion Connors repeatedly broke Borg's serve and displayed the renewed strength in his game. Connors won, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, beating Borg in the second exhibition within a week.
Borg took a long respite from tennis last year, and began tuning his game in April instead of January. His insistence on a lighter schedule threw a wrench into the machinery of men's profesional tennis.
Borg refused to fulfill the mandatory 10 events needed for entry to Grand Prix play, and he balked at the idea of going through the qualifying round at Wimbledon, which he has won five times.
"The Grand Prix rule, it's ridiculous," he said tonight. "They didn't make an exception for me. I hope they change the rules next year. It has to get better."
As does Borg's game if he wants to regain his favorite spot in the limelight. Although his strokes were sharp and smooth, Borg's timing was a half-step shy of perfect too many times.
In the second set, his strongest, Borg was all over the court, forcing Connors to the net again and again.
But Connors, the Wimbledon champion, showed the kind of form tennis fans recall from his reign during the early 1970s. "Yeah, it's nice to be a winner again," he said. "Everybody loves a winner, and now I've got lots of friends."
It seemed Borg had lots of friends in the house tonight, too. Cries of "Bee-yorn!" filled the building even before the pair set foot on the court. All 10,000-plus seats had been sold a week after the announcement of the match.
Richmond's Tennis Foundation sponsored the match in conjunction with Best Products, with proceeds to help fund construction of a municipal tennis center.
This was Richmond's night out, no doubt about it. Autograph seekers began showing up early this afternoon, debating over which entrance to stake out while stalking a Wimbledon hero present or past.
Draped in pink and green bunting, the building looked like a page from the ultimate preppy decorating guide. The scuffed blue covering on the floor, marked off for tennis, caused a delay during the third set.
Borg noticed a patch of covering had ripped away, and lest one of the players trip on it, motioned for a repair team. Bring on the duct tape.
Before Borg and Connors even arrived on court, the crowd was treated to a kind of cultural prelude. First the Richmond Ballet danced a specially choreographed "ballet of the tennis court," then the city's pops orchestra played, followed by a jazz band.
If Connors clearly enjoyed himself, tossing jibes to the appreciative audience and pretending to lament an apparent ball shortage, Borg was understandably subdued.
"Not going to Wimbledon, to other tournaments hurts him," Connors said. "It doesn't do tennis any good."
Borg said, "There is nothing wrong with my serve. My game is strong. It will just take time for me to get back. I just need more matches and practice."
He hopes to be back at his peak next year, he said, and will begin preparing in January to "be in my best shape ever."
Borg's next matches will be in Europe in September. Until then, he said, he will practice, practice, practice.