Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Bjorkman the last of a dying breed
By Sandra Hartwitt Special to ESPN.com
The success of Jonas Bjorkman, right, in singles and doubles the last 14 years is unparalleled.
SHANGHAI, China -- It was in June at Wimbledon, the most auspicious of tennis tournaments, that 36-year-old Jonas Bjorkman set the stage for his departure from the game he has so long played and loved. In a statement that the gracious Swede e-mailed to the media, Bjorkman revealed the time had come for him to put down his racket at the end of the season after 16 glorious years on the tour. In his announcement, Bjorkman said, "It is with great joy that I look forward to the next phase of my life, including packing my children's school bags rather than my own tennis bags.''
Now, months later, Bjorkman's retirement is imminent as he participates in his final career tournament -- the prestigious season-ending Tennis Masters Cup. Relaxed and at peace with his decision to move on, Bjorkman is hoping for a grand finale here in Shanghai. No matter what the outcome this week, he takes a lifetime of memories home with him. "There's no sadness," Bjorkman said. "I'm just happy to finish off my career at the last tournament of the year and finish my career when I'm still playing really good tennis, so I'm finishing up in style, and that's a perfect way to end."
Bjorkman, who always viewed himself as a singles player first, nevertheless ended up making a bigger impact in the tandem game. The Swede said he will most miss the Davis Cup weeks, the "trash-talking" and fun with the guys in the locker room, a few tournaments that became regular yearly stops on his schedule and special friends he made along the way.
Not totally sure what will come next, he expects to continue in his role as an editor for the lone Swedish tennis magazine, and hopes to work with Swedish juniors to bring tennis back to the forefront at home similar to the way it was in the days of Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg.
Just days before he steps away from the game, quite likely the last of a dying breed of players who successfully pursued playing both singles and doubles, Bjorkman sat down with ESPN.com to reflect on the highlights of a successful career.
Davis Cup title: Teaming with Nicklas Kulti in doubles to clinch the Davis Cup title for Sweden against Italy in 1998, marking its third Davis Cup victory in a five-year period. As it turns out, it was the last time the country won the international team event. "Winning Davis Cup is a dream, as is the ability to be able to play for your country."
Winning the Stockholm Open: Bjorkman considers his singles victory at the Stockholm Open in 1997 his second-greatest achievement. The win came in front of a very partisan audience. "To win a tournament at home is always something you are hoping for."
2006 Wimbledon singles semifinal: At the grand old age of 34, Bjorkman reached the Wimbledon singles final four, becoming the oldest Wimbledon semifinalist since a 34-year-old Jimmy Connors performed the same feat in 1987. It was Bjorkman's best Grand Slam singles result since he reached the 1997 U.S. Open semifinal and improved his singles ranking to No. 29. "It was just so unexpected. It was a time in my career when I was much older and you could enjoy the atmosphere and everything around differently than when you were 25 and so focused on your tennis that you couldn't enjoy everything around it."
Nine Grand Slam doubles titles: Bjorkman revels in the fact that his nine Grand Slam doubles were picked up with four different partners -- Australian Open 1998 (Jacco Eltingh), 1999 (Patrick Rafter), 2001 (Todd Woodbridge); French Open 2005 and 2006 (Max Mirnyi); Wimbledon 2002-2004 (with Woodbridge); U.S. Open 2003 (with Woodbridge). Of those victories, Bjorkman revealed, he holds the Wimbledon titles as the most cherished. "I think all of them are special in a way because they came with some great players, great friends that I won those titles with."
Top 5 singles, No. 1 doubles ranking: A rare player to compete at a high level in both singles and doubles, Bjorkman earned a career-high No. 4 ranking in singles (November 1997) and first ranked No. 1 in doubles in July 2001. "That's something I've always been very proud of, and it's definitely a highlight of my career. I always loved playing both."
Five-set triumphs: In 42 five-set singles matches, Bjorkman put together a 29-13 winning record. He played and won his first five-set match in the first round of the 1994 Australian Open, and his last came when he lost to Andy Murray in the second round of the 2007 U.S. Open. Interestingly, he came back from two sets down four times in his career, and three of those times were in the four five-set matches he played in 2007. "I would definitely put my five-set record in as a highlight. It's been a lot of fun going into that position and winning a lot of those matches."
In 2006, at the age of 34, Jonas Bjorkman became the oldest Wimbledon semifinalist since Jimmy Connors in 1987.
Six singles titles: 1997 was a standout season for Bjorkman, who captured three singles titles at Auckland, Indianapolis and Stockholm. He also won the Nottingham tournament twice (1998, 2002) and captured his final singles victory at the Ho Chi Minh City tournament in 2005. Bjorkman made five additional appearances in tournament finals, with the last being at age 34 at Nottingham in 2006. "Obviously, Stockholm was the special one to win, but all of them have been great. And Nottingham has been such a great tournament for me."
Two season-ending titles: Bjorkman closed out two seasons in style by winning the year-end Masters title, a feat he achieved in 1994 with fellow Swede Jan Appel and in 2006 with Max Mirnyi. And there's still a possibility of a third career year-end title this week, which marks his eighth appearance in the season finale. "Winning the Masters twice is definitely a top-10 highlight of my career."
Thirty-seven consecutive Grand Slam tournaments: Bjorkman played in 37 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments from the 1993 U.S. Open to the 2002 U.S. Open before missing the 2003 Australian Open for a worthwhile absence -- the birth of his son, Max. He missed the 2008 Australian Open for the birth of daughter Bianca. "I think that's a great achievement, and to miss only two Grand Slam tournaments throughout my whole career, which happened with becoming a dad, which I think is a big achievement and so much fun."
Player council president 2000-01: Always popular and well-respected among his peers, Bjorkman was selected by fellow players to be their lead representative when it came to the game's politics. "I learned a lot from doing that. As a player you think it's very easy to go in and change things, like with the scheduling, which is what the biggest talk is about, but it's not that easy. It's tough to find a schedule good for everyone and find other issues that are good for everyone. It was great support that the players thought I had the ability to maybe change a few things."
Biggest career regret 1997 U.S. Open: Bjorkman cites his semifinal loss to Greg Rusedski as the biggest disappointment in his career. "I had a great record [4-1] against him going into that match, and it was always a good matchup for me. I would've had a good chance in the final against my friend Pat Rafter because we always had very close [matches]. That was maybe my chance, so that would be my big regret."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.